Sunday, December 20, 2009

Leafs have Monster of a Game!

     There's no doubt the Toronto Maple Leafs have their fair share of faults, but one thing they do have going for them is good timing.  Just when I thought they were slipping back to the form that found them in danger of being O for October they bounced back with a shutout against the Boston Bruins.  There's really no bad time for a win obviously, but the timing on this one was perfect.
     This was Jonas Gustavsson's first game back after his second heart operation.  Although he wasn't exactly overworked, he did make all the right saves at the right time.  His presence in net seemed to restore some of the teams confidence coming off back to back losses this week.  In both games Toronto looked terrible in almost all aspects of their game but in Friday's game against Buffalo it was definitely a lack of timely saves that let them down.  Actually any saves would have been good.
     It was also about time they came up with as good effort against the Bruins.  They've been owned by this divisional opponent and needed this win to prove to fans and critics they can beat teams of this caliber.  The fact that it was a shutout at home on a Saturday night was even more icing on the cake.
     Vesa Toskala has been very good this month and should take a lot of credit for the Leafs return to the playoff race.  Having said this, it was clearly time for a break.  After being pulled in Buffalo it was easy to see.  With the Monsters return that's now possible.  With a 7 - 4 record so far this month and 5 games left, a winning record for the month of December is definitely within the realm of possibilities as well.
     More great timing was provided by Nikolai Kulemin as well.  He probably played his best game this year blocking shots and provided his usual strong defensive play.  Other credit should go to Francois Beauchemin and Jason Blake.  Both players have picked the most demanding part of the schedule this season to play their best hockey.
     There's no doubt Leaf fans have put up with a lot this season.  October was horrendous.  November was better but not good enough to make us ALL believers.   The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't been perfect this month, but just when we needed them to be great they have been.  They've vaulted back into the playoff race by gelling as a team and for the most part sticking to Ron Wilson's game plan.  Their good players have been good and their one or two great players have been great.  When the new year rings in, they could find themselves a five-hundred hockey team with a playoff position.  Not bad for a team with  only 1 win in their first 13 games.

     As tough as the schedule has been In December, it does`t look like January is going to get much better.  What are your thoughts?  Are they up for the task or will January's pace return them to mediocrity?
Toronto 2 Boston 0


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Leafs are Listening to Wilson.

     The last time I checked the standings, the Toronto Maple Leafs were still in second last place.  They still had to overtake six teams to achieve a play-off berth, and they were still a sub five hundred hockey team.  After acknowledging these thing I asked myself, "Why am I smiling?"  The answer was was right in front of me.
     A closer look at the standings showed our Toronto Maple Leafs with 10 wins  in their last 23.  In six of those losses they gained  a point because the game went to overtime.  This still doesn't make them a five hundred team, but it does give Leaf fans hope for seeing them play at least one round in the playoffs.
     The Leafs picked a very good time to play their best hockey.  December's schedule is brutal.  They play 13 games between the first and the 23rd.  They don't have more than one night off during that stretch and end the months schedule with three games in five nights between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve.  Of those 16 games, 13 will have been against a conference opponent.  Six of those games are against teams within 7 points of the Leafs in the Eastern Conference.  A good month means a legitimate shot at the playoffs.  So far it's been a good month.  Except for two losses to a very good Boston Bruins team, they've been very good.  The Leafs started the month with a shut-out win against the hated Habs, very convincing wins against Columbus and Atlanta and a good character builder against the Islanders where they squandered a 2 goal lead, but went on to win.  Going into tonight's game against Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals, they are 6 and 2 in the month of December.
      So why are the Leafs looking like a team on a mission?  It might be because Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek have finally found their games.  Maybe it's because Jason Blake has found his scoring touch.  Might it be a result of Stajan, Grabovski, and Kulemin.  All three of these Leafs are playing their best hockey this season.  Matt Stajan is even emerging a team leader again.  Vesa Toskala is stopping pucks and even Luke Schenn is starting to come out of the funk that has been tempting fans to call for his demotion to the minors.  Most significant in this is we can finally praise the play of Leaf players without mentioning Niklas Hagman and Phil Kessel.  Both players are clearly their most gifted forwards, but with the help of the aforementioned players, they don't have to carry this team any longer.
     As good as the players have looked recently, the most credit should go to their coach.  Thank goodness it's an Olympic year.  Had it not been, Ron Wilson may have been fired in October.  Wilson wasn't fired obviously and like his team he didn't quit either.  Instead he kept preaching his system to the struggling Leafs.  Wilson convinced his team they could win by simplifying their game.  He knows the kind of team he has.  A good, tough, defensive core, with speed to burn upfront.
     When Wilson has his team listening and playing THEIR game, they're usually rewarded.  They can block shots, and wear down their opponents with relentless forchecking and crushing hits.  Their forwards have enough backup to be able to live infront of the oppositions net without having to worry about reprisals from the other teams  tough guys.  In short, Ron Wilson has them playing old style hockey.  Nothing fancy, but tremendously entertaining most nights.  If he can maintain their attention, they have a chance to bury the past and make a legitimate playoff run.  If they stop listening like they did losing both games in Boston, we can forget about any hope of an extended season.  Here's hoping they listen.
     What do you think?  Who should get the credit?  Do they have enough to be a playoff team? What's the next move for Brian Burke?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Leafs Get Humbled in Boston.

     After last nights embarrassing loss to the Boston Bruins I asked myself, "should we really be surprised?"  Ofcourse we can be dissapointed, but surprised?  I don't think so.   This time last month this team was in complete turmoil!  We had only won two games and were wondering if this could be our worst season ever.  Luckily much has changed since then.
      Saturday night's 7-2 loss in Boston was the Leafs 28th game of the year.  This puts them one third of the way into the season.  If we break down these games into thirds what do we find?  What I see is a struggling franchise making small improvements.
      We all know how this team started the year.  One win in nine games.  The second nine weren't much better.  They managed 2 wins.  Since then however, the Leafs have been quite respectable posting five wins in nine games.  Maybe all this means nothing, but I think it shows a team that is slowly, but steadily, improving.  This brings us back to last nights game.  The 7-2 score was actually quite flattering to the Leafs.  They didn't score until well into the third period.  It was disappointing because a win would have given us our first winning streak of the year ( no, two wins in a row is not a streak).
      It's not surprising because, while the Leafs have been quite entertaining of late, they still have only managed to win eight games in twenty eight.   These are not the stats of a contender.  Boston on the other hand is a contender.  Even with the injury problems the Bruins have faced they still have almost twice as many wins as Toronto and sit third in the conference.  The Bruins are a team with legitimate stars at every position, a well stocked farm, a wealth of draft picks and a history of using them well.   The good news for Leaf fans is it wasn't that long ago, that Boston was exactly where the Leafs are now.  The unfortunate part for Leaf  fans is they were right there with them, but we'll leave that for another post.

     Despite our record of futility since the lock out, there is reason for hope in Leaf Nation.  We have one, new, legitimate star in Phil Kessel.  We've managed to resist panicking and trading our other star, Tomas Kaberle.   The Monster will get healthy and looks like he can be our goalie of the future, and we have at least one blue chip prospect in our system with Nazim Kadri.  Next year Luke Schenn will be over the sophomore jinx and maybe one of Bozak, Hanson, Stalberg or Gunnarsson will be living up to Brian Burkes lofty expectations.  We don't have to be reminded that we are short on draft picks for the next two years, but so far Kessel has looked great and maybe even worth the price.  I'm still undecided about whether that deal should have been made, but Kessel is quickly winning me over.  Besides with the recent trade of Tlusty for a first round prospect it went a long way to replenishing the farm.  Tlusty was never going to amount to much here and Paridis has good upside as well as being a Burke type player.
      None of this means the Leafs will win the Cup this year or next or even the year after.  It doesn't mean they'll be playing in June.  It does mean we will have more nights like last night, but with some more good moves and a lot of patience, Leaf Nation will rise again.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Now That's More Like It!

     Nothings sweeter for Leaf fans than beating those dreaded Montreal Canadians.  When Colton Orr and Jeff Finger score the first two it just get's better.  I'll give you a minute to digest that one.  Ok, get back on your chair.  That's right, COLTON ORR scored his first goal as a Leaf, the winner by the way, and Jeff Finger scored what ended up to be the insurance goal.

     Tuesday night at the Bell Center in Montreal, your Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadians, 3 - 0.  This was quite a turn around for them since they were shut out themselves Monday night against another division rival, the Buffalo Sabres.  This time it was the Leafs who quieted the crowd and set the tone of the game by luring Montreal into playing their style of hockey.  This was exactly what Brian Burke had in mind when he put this team together.  The defense was solid, getting in the way of shots and forcing a much smaller Montreal team to the outside all game.  Offensively, Toronto forwards were tough on the Habs, pushing them around and creating traffic in front of Carey Price all night.

     As usual Kessel and Hagman were Toronto's best forwards but they weren't the only ones working last night.  Mat Stajan had a very strong game keeping the pressure on Price and also chipping in with his eighth goal of the season.   He was perfect taking a pass from Kessel and going in alone, scoring  on Price's  glove side.  Mikael Grabovski also showed signs of life buzzing around the Montreal  net and creating scoring chances.  With  the exception of the first ten minutes it was all Toronto.

     This game came with two prices however.  Unfortunately for the Leafs, one was very costly.  After making eight saves in the first period, Jonas Gustavsson was a third of the way to recording his first NHL shut-out.  That's as close as he got however, as he was unable to return for the second period because of an irregular heartbeat.  Gustavsson experinced a similar problem with a racing heartbeat during the preseason and actually had surgery as a result.  According to Coach Wilson his heartbeat had actually returned to normal before being removed from the game.  Leaf officials maintain his hospital visit was simply a precautionary measure but have not reported whether he'll miss games. Fortunately Joey MacDonald picked up where The Monster Left off.  MacDonald entered the game at the beginning of the second and was perfect, helping the Leafs earn their first shut-out of the season.

     Last nights game was more proof Leaf fans are in for a bit of a roller-coaster ride this season.  Granted the Habs are not a cup contender and are only marginally higher in the standings than the Leafs.  However,  if you can have a must win situation in December this was one of them.  Toronto was shut-out at home against another division rival the night before.  Montreal is ahead of them in the standings and now within reach of catching, and a loss last night would have been the beginning of yet another losing streak.  At the end of the night we're still in second last, but with an effort like we had last night fans have a little more to look forward to than watching Phil Kessel rack up highlights.  Not to mention, we beat the Habs, and that's always a good thing.

You Have to Admit, They've been fun to Watch.

They may be in second last.  They probably won't make the playoffs.  The rebuild may take longer than exepected.  All these may be valid claims but at least for Leaf fans they do have an entertaining team on the ice.
Don't agree, no problem, you're are not alone.  Maybe this clip will help convince you though.