Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our Leafs Just Won't Quit!

Here we go again.  In one week The Toronto Maple Leafs have gone from Chumps to Champs.  Just when we were talking about these guys hitting rock bottom, they've put together another mini point streak.  A week ago they lost, in horrible fashion to the worst team in the league.  Not only did they lose to the Carolina Hurricanes, they did it by surrendering the lead twice, giving up a goal with three seconds left and then losing in a shoot-out.  The game before they squandered a lead to the Ottawa Senators and went on to lose to them.  The Leafs had lost FIVE in a row!  We were living a nightmare, and we couldn't wake up.

Well the nightmare may be over.  It appears the boys in Blue and White have woken up, and fans are cheering again.  Since that terrible night in Carolina, the Leafs have beat Washington in a shoot-out, lost in a shoot-out against the Islanders, and beat Tampa and Florida on the road.  That's 8 points out of a possible 10.  Not bad for a team with no skill, and for the record,  I still believe they're a team desperately in need of skilled players. 

What this team lacks in skill, they sure make up for in heart.  Sounds like another cliche doesn't it?  Well think about this.  So far this month the Leafs have out shot their opponents 40-22 against Calgary, 45-32 against Carolina, and recorded 61 shots to the Islanders 21.  They lost all 3 of those games.  This was the perfect opportunity for Leaf players to lose heart.  Who could blame them?  The fact is they didn't quit.  They don't seem to know the meaning of the word.  Add to these stats the fact that they blew a 3 goal lead in Tampa, and fell behind 2-0 in Florida in less time than it took for the P.A. announcer to read out the scorers to the crowd.  Instead of folding the tent, they fought back and won both those games on the road.

Not only have they been racking up some points, they've been doing it with style.  Phil the Highlight Reel Kessel, has been treating fans to plays we haven't seen since Gilmour, Sundin and Andreychuk were carrying this team.  He can flat out play, and it doesn't seem to matter who they put on his line.  It appears a well, that Kessel isn't the only leafs forward who can find the back of the net.  Niklas Hagman has stepped up his play with some flashy breakaways and nice goals of his own.  Another reason to cheer has been the play of Carl Gunnarsson.  He's averaged twenty minutes a game since being called up and has shown an offensive flair while managing to be solid in his own end.

None of this means this team is playoff bound.  It's still a huge long shot at best.  As good as it's been these last 5 games, they did lose 5 in a row leading up to them.  What it does mean however, is they may have enough to keep us interested during another rebuild.  The question is what's next?  Which team will show  up Monday against Buffalo?  We know Kessel will continue to thrill, but what about the rest.  Is Hagman on his way to a career year or is this just another hot streak.  Will Gunnarsson continue to improve or is he just another 7th round flash in the pan.  We can only guess at the answers, but what we do know is this team will be entertaining.  They may lose more times than not, but if they continue to battle the way they have been, fans will still have reason to cheer.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rally Caps, If Only We'd Known Sooner!!!

Ron Wilson has  tried team building exercises, dodgeball, making players watch from the press box or the bench, and even criticizing them in the media to get his team back in the win column.  Funnily enough the answer was staring him right in the face, in form of Matt Stajan.  Rally helmets, WHO KNEW!

Saturday night The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the The Washington Capitals 2-1 in a SHOOT-OUT.  That's right leaf fans, a shout-out.   It was a game of firsts.  It was the Leafs first win in six games.  The first win against the first place Washington Capitals.  The first win for Vesa Toskala this season and his first win since Febuary of 26th of last season.  It was the first time this season the Leafs have gone to over time and won.  It was the first time they've won in a shoot-out this year.  This was the first time the rally helmets have made an appearance this year, and for the first time they worked.

Don't listen to Ron Wilson.  The coach of The Toronto Maple Leafs says the helmets had nothing to do with the win.  He says it was just bit of fun Matt Stajan suggested prior to the shoot-out.  Don't believe him.  Those things work.  Wilson just doesn't want us to know this because it could mean he can be replaced by an equipment manager.

In all seriousness, it was just a bit of fun.  The fact is, any idea in that vein would have had the same effect.  It wiped the usual somber looks off the the players bench and removed some of the tension usually present prior to a Leaf shoot-out.  For a few moments, they were allowed to have fun and pretend this is just a game.  They responded with two nice shoot-out goals.  The first was by Phil Kessel, his first in 2 attempts.  The other was scored by Niklas Hagman, a nifty little backhanded deek.  Vesa Toskala was equally good stopping Ovechkin and Fehr.  Vesa was so intimidating, he caused  Fehr's stick to break, and Ovechkin's shot to completely miss him and the net.  Yes Matt Stajan, "the hockey gods where with you"

The most important "first" coming out of this game was it was the first time Leaf fans could say they got their monies worth since they beat Detroit at home two weeks ago.  After losing the "Battle of Ontario" to Ottawa, and the Battle for last place to Carolina, this was a most welcome surprise for fans paying more to see their team play than any other in the league.

I would be remiss if I didn't add a few new negatives to this post.  Unfortunately it's becoming a bit of a trademark for me and this team.  Washington entered last nights game with a few key injuries.  They were missing two regular defensemen, Shaonne Morrisonn, and Tom Poti, and forwards Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin.  The impact of being without two such talents up front should be easy to fathom for Leaf fan, as they've been without like players for too long and the results are self-evident...(Phil Kessel excluded of course).  Washington did lack jump and even Ovechkin mentioned he thought his team looked tired.  Even with that they did manage two goal posts in the third that probably would have caused panic among the Leafs and cemented a win for the Caps. We also can't forget Hagman's goal.  While it did result from good hustle and the presence of mind of going to the net without the puck, it was also the result of a fortunate bounce off of a Washington defender and Hagman's shoulder.

Having said this, a win is a win and the Leafs should receive full marks for it.  Vesa Toskala was good, very good in fact.  The team had jump and outplayed their opponent again.  They threw everything but water bottles at Varlamov and were stymied all night.  They didn't give up however.  They continued their hustle into overtime and finally found a way to beat him in the shoot-out.  Not an easy accomplishment given Varlamov's outstanding record in extra time.  Leaf fans got their monies worth and Wilson and the boys got the win!  Hopefully they can build on it and provide us with more of the same excitement they gave us last night.

Click below and check-out last night's game in a nutshell.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What a Difference a Week Makes!

A little over a week ago the Toronto Maple Leafs had just thrashed the Detroit Red Wings, moved out of last place, and positioned themselves to start challenging for a playoff spot. They had a 7 game points streak and had won 2 games in a row.  Fans were talking playoffs and actually had reason to believe it might happen.  Ron Wilson was sleeping at night.  His players were finally listening.

Ten days have passed since then.  The Leafs have lost 4 games  in  a row and are back to the style of play that had critics calling them pretenders rather than contenders.  This past week and a half, has seen our Leafs lose to Minnesota, Chicago, Calgary, and Ottawa.  Based on their play this year even the most optimistic fan could never have expected them to win all of those games, but a split was definitely achievable.  Those much needed 4 points would have put them within striking distance of 8th spot and one step closer to respectability.  Instead their back in last place and back out of playoff contention.  Worst of all it appears they've reverted back to playing the undisciplined hockey that almost left them 0 for October.

It's no secret the Leafs are a little short on talent and skill.  They still need better goaltending and much better play from almost all of their forwards.  With the exception of Kessel, Kaberle and White, every player on this team has under-achieved.  Gustavsson may be entitled to a pass as he's still making the adjustment to the NHL and while Schenn is a huge dissapointment this year,  it's not completely unexpected due to his age and inexperience.  The same cannot be said for the rest. 

We could go up and down the roster rhyming off numbers, showing how unproductive the forwards have been.  We could blame Toskala for his inconsistent play and habit of giving up at least one soft goal a game.  We could talk about needless penalties and their inability to kill them off.  The fact of the matter is they have been scoring goals (well Kessel has anyway).  The penalty kill has looked better.  Our defense has been more responsible and Toskala has looked much better since the emergence of The Monster.  So why do we keep losing.

The Leafs are losing because they've forgotten how to win!  They have completely abandoned the system Ron Wilson has been trying to get them to play since he took control of this team.  Why this bunch of talent starved skaters think they can play run and gun hockey is a mystery to me.  Watching Phil Kessel pick the puck up at his blueline and blast past everyone on the ice is a thing of beauty.  The way he can explode over the opponents blueline and wrist a laser into the net gives me chills.  Unfortunately,  Kessel is only one player and nobody else on this team has anything close to his scoring ability.  So far no one, not even Ron Wilson has been able to convince them of that.  The Leafs have stopped playing like a team.  It's like watching five skaters flying around trying to win the game on their own.

The effort is there.  If it hadn't been for some good goaltending by Calgary and Ottawa, they may have indeed split their last 4 games.  Well a loss is a loss no matter how well they looked.  With all these losses fans and media have begun to ask who is to blame.  So far most fingers point to Ron Wilson.  Should he be fired?  Who knows?  It can't be all his fault.  He's only the coach.  If the players don't play, what can he do?  Sure he can bench players and limit ice time,  but with everyone playing as poorly as they are, how will this help?   One thing is for sure.  Ron Wilson IS THE COACH.  That means it's his job to teach the system he wants his players to play.  If they aren't listening he has to find a way to make them.  That's his job, his responsibilty.  Hall of Fame Coach or not, if he can't find a way to make them listen to him, his days will be numbered, and rightly so.

Give me your impression.  Agree or disagree?  Can Wilson make  this team a winner? Are these players good enough?  Is this all a bunch of dribble?   I'd love to know what you think.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Will the Real Toronto Maple Leafs Please Stand UP!

The Jekyll and Hyde show continued Friday night in Chicago, as the Leafs dropped their second in a row 3-2 to the Blackhawks.  It looks as though the stinker they served up against Minnesota was not a mere blip in the midst of a remarkable turnaround.  It's possible it was an example of what Leaf fans should expect for the rest of the season.

A team is never as bad as they appear during a losing streak, and never as good as they look on a winning streak.  The Leafs proved this again Friday night.  Last night Vesa Toskala showed he can be much better than he's been over the first part of the season.  It's debatable whether Patrick Kane's wrist-shot over Toskala's glove should have been stopped, but it was point blank, so maybe we'll cut Vesa some slack.  What shouldn't be argued was the rest of his play.  He looked much more confident and competitive.  There were no softies Friday night.  He made some huge saves and looked very quick going post to post all night.  If we resign ourselves to considering Toskala as a backup goalie, the effort looked even better.

More good news was provided by the play of Phil Kessel.  At least 1 of his two beauties was worthy of a highlight reel and couldn't be duplicated by anyone currently on the Leaf roster. His 4 goals in five games and points in all but 1 of them is quickly helping fans forget the 3 picks they gave up to get him.

Only in Leaf land can see good news in a loss.  Now for the reality check.  For the second game in a row we wasted strong goaltending performances.  The Leafs have looked terrible in the first period in both games this week.  Other than Kessel nobody is generating any offense.  Worst of all, the Leafs have abandoned the style of play that got us thinking playoffs again.

Let's face it Chicago is a better team than Toronto right now.  They were the favorite going into last nights game on home ice.  We were without Komisarek which finally sounds like a bad thing.  Our second string goalie was in net.  These are all valid excuses, but can't be used when looking at Tuesdays game at home against an inferior Minnesota team.  The fact is we haven't played well since that great game against Detroit.  If the Maple Leafs hope to dig themselves out of the hole they dug in October they can't squander any more games.

Back to the good news.  Tonight The Monster is back in net.  Phil Kessel is playing well and making other players around him play better.  Mike Komisarek may be gone for the next three weeks, but they have 3 or 4 players salivating for a chance to prove their worth.  Finally as bad as they've been this week, all indications show their is a quick fix.

When they were earning points, they were doing it with simple, old fashioned hockey.  Ron Wilson knows his team is a little starved for talent.  He also knows he has some solid veteran defensemen and some pretty good young ones too.  He also know his team is fast, very fast in fact.

We know Gustavsson needs to work on rebound control.  His defense has to help gobble them up like they were doing prior to this mini-slump.  The defense has to grab those rebounds and either look for the quick pass to a forward or dump the puck into the neutral zone.  No more carrying the puck, Kaberle is the only Leaf D-man who can do it (sorry Ian White but you're not there yet).  Luke Schenn should only be allowed have possesion for 2 seconds at a time ... get the puck, pass the puck or get it over the blueline.  Sorry but  making plays like he did against Chicago is only going to kill his already shattered confidence.

Finally the Leafs need to use their speed to their advantage.  They've played their best hockey by beating their opponents up ice and winning the battles on the boards.  Last Saturday they dominated Detroit by limiting the play to the outside in their own end and making those short quick up-ice passes.  For years we've seen slow footed Leaf players take lazy, holding penalties between the blue lines because the opposition was so much faster.  They can finally turn the table and force other teams to take those penalties.  We know they can play this way and we know it works for them.  Ron Wilson has the right plan to make these guys winners again, hopefully they're listening.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

It's Fun in Leaftown Again!

The only thing better than beating the dreaded Habs for Leaf fans, is beating those nasty Red Wings.  Last night that's exactly what they did.  Saturday night, at the ACC, Toronto Maple Leaf  fans witnessed a gem.  5-1 was the final.  No footnotes, no explanations, they didn't beat a last place team, or win because of good bounces or lots of powerplays.  It was a good old fashioned win against a good team.

Saturday's game gave Leaf Nation a thoroughly satisfying win.  For the first time this year they got their moneys worth.  The Leafs played a well disciplined game.  They didn't take bad penalties, refused to get sucked into playing Detroits game, and used their speed to counter attack all evening.  Gustavsson was fantastic, again, but so was the defense.  They made nice first passes, kept the front of the net clear and gobbled up all of  The Monsters rebounds. They didn't try to make something out of nothing and effectively cleared the puck from their zone when they needed to.  The few times the Red Wings did try to mount a sustained attack , the Leaf defense played to their own strengths and kept the puck to the outside, on the boards, where their size and strength gave them the advantage. They played the game Burke and Wilson have been promising us they could.

Leaf fans now know who their number one goalie is, they have a legitimate top offensive line, and best of all, they can start thinking playoffs again.  Before all those anti-Leafs out there starting groaning and twittering about how Leaf Nation is talking Stanley Cup, I should mention this club is nowhere near that level yet.  However, based on the last two weeks, I'm certain Toronto Maple Leaf players, management and fans, have the right to look forward to possibly playing hockey in the spring of 2010. 

The first four weeks of the season was disastrous for The Toronto Maple Leafs.  They squandered a third period lead in their season opener and lost with 13 seconds left in overtime to arch rivals, The Montreal Canadians.  Little did fans know this was going to be the highlight of their first eight games of the season.  They would have to wait to their ninth game of the year before earning their next point.  That span of eight games saw them outscored  35-15.  They looked lost.  Toskala was terrible and showed absolutely no confidence between the pipes and their defense looked worse.  To a player, every offseason pickup looked like a huge blunder by new GM Brian Burke.

The streak ended in Anaheim.  The perfect ending to an horrific streak.  Jonas Gustavsson, the Swedish goaltending prospect, signed in the offfseason as a major piece in Burkes rebuilding puzzle, was back from injury.  He instantly won over fans and gave them the glimmer of hope they were desperately looking for.  They won 6-3.  Their powerplay was unstoppable and with The Monster as their best penalty killer, they were almost perfect when down a man.  For the first time in 6 games they scored more than 2 goals.  No more dumb penalties by Komisarek, Beauchemin was back to playing his game, and Tomas Kaberle woke up and became the best offensive defenseman in the game.  Non-believers would say the Ducks lost the game on their own by taking so many penalties, and being so undisciplined.  Most observers agreed, but since that game a new streak has begun and it's breathed new hope into Leaf Nation.

The past seven games has seen the Leafs record a point in every one of them.  They have outscored their opponent 24-20 and have won three of those games in overtime.  They've even won their last two in a row.  They have the best powerplay in the league and the PK is getting stronger with every kill.  If this wasn't good enough, Phil Kessel joined the team and gave them a spark not seen since the arrival of Doug Gilmour.

Kessel blasted on the scene with 10 shots against Tampa Bay and notched his first goal last night against Detroit, the game winner by the way.  He's already on a point a game pace, but more importantly he's made the Leafs already lethal powerplay even more deadly.  As an added bonus he's inspired Jason Blake to step up his game and may have turned youngster John Mitchell into a first line center overnight.  Two firsts and a second round pick still sounds like a lot to give up but suddenly the trade is starting to look less one-sided. The most telling stat is, with Phil Kessel in the lineup they're 2-1 and have outscored the opposition 9-5. 

Since this turnaround the Leafs sit tied for 27th overall.  They're 5 points behind the Habs with 2 games in hand.  If they win their next game against Minnesota they'll move ahead of them in the standings.  They may overtake Florida and end up tied with Atlanta.  They may find  themselves only 4 points out of a playoff spot.

The Toronto Maple Leafs dug themselves a pretty deep hole in the first eight games this season.  They 're far from climbing out.  Fortunately the past seven games has shown fans, and the rest of the league, they aren't about to roll over and right off the season.  Who knows, maybe Brian Burke wasn't just blustering.  Maybe this team is better, and maybe Leaf players can leave their golf clubs at home this spring while they do battle in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Leafs can't Win in Overtime

The Toronto Maple Leafs 5 game road trip came to an end Saturday night, and while it only produced 1 win it did give Leaf fans some reasons to cheer.  Before embarking the Leafs had yet to win a game and looked terrible in all but their first game of the season.   They still won't be mistaken for a playoff contender, and remain in last place, but with points in their last four games, the bandwagon is beginning to take on passengers again.

Anyone not a fan of the beloved blue and white may not understand how  to see the good in a team with only 1 win in 12 games, but Leaf fans are experts in separating hope from despair.  So for those non-beleafers impaired by perennial pessimism, here are some positives you may not have noticed.

Last night the leafs scored first!  They hadn't done that in their previous 11 games.  In their  5 games before hitting the road they hadn't mustered more than 2 goals in a game and in 3 of them had only managed 1 goal each.  Needless to say their power play was almost non-existent and even worse their penalty kill made their opponents look like the 84 Oilers.  In today's NHL that just can't happen ... the proof being the Leafs record before going on the road.  They started the trip with both starting goalies injured.  Their 3 offseason defensive pickups (Exelby, Komisarek, and Beauchemin) were tempting Leafs fans to petition Todd Gill to make a comeback.  In short they were awful and looking like a team destined to finish last over-all.  Considering they don't have first pick for the next 2 years things looked bad!

Much has changed since then.  The Leafs have THE BEST power play in the league!  If you don't believe me look it up.  The penalty kill still ranks at the bottom of the league, but has been crawling back steadily and is no longer an automatic goal.  Their 30 goals scored ties them at 22nd best, not worst in the league.  As of last night both starting goalies are healthy and Jonas Gustavsson is showing why Brian Burke chased him all spring.

If this weren't enough, Tomas Kaberle is on FIRE!  After last nights 4 point effort (he was in on all 4 Leaf goals), he now sits tied for 6th amongst all NHL players.  Not defensemen ... players.  His 17 points puts him ahead of Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Danny Heatley.  His 15 assists is BEST in the NHL.  When was the last time we could say best and Toronto Maple Leafs in the same sentence?  Did I mention he's tied the game in the final minute 2 games in a row.   Even if you still think he should be traded this has to make you happy.

Kaberle's not the only won looking good these days.  Niklas Hagman has a hat-trick and six goals so far.  Lee Stempniak is playing his best hockey since being obtained from St. Louis.  His shot from the point on the power play has been a welcome, if not startling surprise.  An honorable mention should go the Mikhail Grabovski for his contribution to the four game Leaf point streak as well.  If he continues to play this way he may become a fixture on a line with newcomer Phil Kessel.

Tuesday night the Leafs come home to play the Tampa Bay Lightning.  They will also be treated to Phil Kessel's much anticipated first game as a Leaf. That's probably the best news so far.  This speedy winger and power play specialist enters the line-up of a team with the best power-play, best offensive defenseman, possibly the best rookie goaltender, and a 4 game regulation-time unbeaten streak.  That might be more flattering than they deserve but why should Burke and Wilson get to be the Spin-Doctors all the time.  Now if we could figure out how to score in overtime or in a shoot-out we might just be allowed to talk playoffs again.