Saturday, November 14, 2009

Maple Leafs this week [Nov 6-13]

Highlights

Leafers had an awesome game for Hockey Night in Canada against the Red Wings last Saturday, and the most important parts were two-fold. First, it was the first game I got to watch this season in weeks, and two, I totally won a big bet with my wife, who is a big Red Wings fan.

Gustavsson was fantastic in net, and the Leafs played very well in front of him. The Wings only had one good open chance in front of the net, which they scored on, and for the rest of the game, there were a whole team of blue jerseys out in front protecting the goalie. It was good to see.

As for their offense, they seemed to get a lot of shots through the Chris Osgood, even though they hadn't manufactured particularly good scoring chances. They had possession in the Detroit zone quite often and took plenty of shots on net, but that doesn't mean that they had unbelievable passing plays that drew players out of position and opened up opportunities at the net.

Although, there was one very cool play that Kulemin and Grabovski (I think it was them) put together at the blue line while entering the zone that was fantastic - I can't remember how it went exactly, but hopefully I'll get to see it again some time soon.

Komisarek's injury seemed to be no problem after Jeff Finger played the game of his life - after the goal he scored, he seemed to be out on the ice all the time - Ron Wilson really seemed to enjoy having him out there, which was good to see.

- - -

Minnesotta Wild of Nov. 9

Losing 5-2 to the Wild was a bit disappointing - the Wild looked big compared to the Leafs, and they seemed to create a lot of traffic in front of the net which proved to be the difference in the game. They had a lot of shots at the net, many were tipped, and they created troublesome situations. On redirections a goalie has very little margin for error - and the Wild were very good at taking advantage of that situation. Again, the Leafs had trouble creating strong offensive situations. Even though Phil Kessel's breakaway goal was beautiful, Ponikarovski's goal was a redirection; redirections are reliable game-in and game-out for continued winning. And that being said, the Leafs' "winning streak" comes to an end after two good games against a very bad team (in Carolina) and a very good team in Detroit.

Dave Feschuk's thoughts on the game seemed to reflect my thoughts, though he was a bit rougher on the Leafs than was probably fair.

So forget for a moment, on the morning after the Leafs' only multiple-game win streak of the season ended at two, that Gustavsson surrendered four goals in a string of 10 Minnesota shots. Forget that Tuesday night's 5-2 Leafs loss at the Air Canada Centre was proof that, while a competent goalie can keep a talent-challenged team in a lot of games, he can't keep them in every game.

Indeed, it was impossible to pin the defeat on the 25-year-old Monster, not after so many of the Leafs, the 29th-place team in a 30-team league, played like self-satisfied slackers; not after the worst penalty-killing unit in the league surrendered two more power-play goals. So give Gustavsson credit for honesty: He didn't spend the post-game media scrum pretending to beat himself up. No point in killing your confidence for your teammates' sins.

All the focus over the last few games has been on the rookie goaltender - which never makes things easy. He had been targeted as "The Guy" who will necessitate whether the Leafs succeed this season, or not. He's The Indicator of a positive future for the Leafs, so every game he plays he's the one piece of the team that you can isolate and target for future success - and that CANNOT be easy to carry alone.

Phil Kessel has played two games, and it's far too early to evaluate his impact for the team, plus, his icetime is drastically lower than Gustavsson's. All the other acquisitions that the Leafs made over the off-season (Komisarek and Exelby) are injured, (Orr) non-factors; or (Hanson, Stalberg, Bozak) aren't even on the team right now. So it all falls on Gustavsson.

This wouldn't be the case if Toskala was serving as any time of mentor, which he's not. He's injured, humbled, and exposed in the crease. He's having one of the worst seasons ever, and the Leafs didn't bring in Gustavsson to take over, he was brought in to create a competitive atmosphere in the net so that Toskala could regain his form from when he was workign with Nabokov in San Jose. This was to allow Gustavsson to transition slowly - instead of jump right in. (this was the plan, surely).

Now we're getting a burned-out Gustavsson and an unreliable Toskala - not part of the plan at all.

Feschuk notes:
Wily observers noted that Gustavsson had looked tired in Monday's practice and Tuesday's morning skate. Then again, it's hard to know what even the freshest of acrobats could have done to turn back most of Minnesota's goals on Tuesday night. Martin Havlat's wraparound banked in off Gustavsson's skate to open the scoring. (Ron Wilson, the Leafs coach, called the goal "lucky.") The Wild made good on a 5-on-3 advantage to make it 2-1. (And here Wilson complained that the delay-of-game penalty to Alexei Ponikarovsky that put the Leafs down two men was ill-gotten.)
Not good - especially this early in the season. The big losing streak to start the season might be useful in keeping some of the pressure off of the team to compete for a playoff spot and simply let them develop, but indicators of development might only be noticeable if the team can in fact compete for that playoff spot - so it's a difficult oroborus-like situation.

- - - -

Chicago Blackhawks of Nov. 13


The Leafs were lambs to slaughter against the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, a team that blows the doors of their opponents with great speed, size and strength - but the Leafs managed to keep the game close. And if it weren't for a bad goal review, it might have been even more competitive. Only a 3-2 loss.

The Blackhawks were the dominant team through the first half of the game, but the Leafs were able to hang around with the score close, which is a good place to be against any good team. Frankly, the Blackhawks should have been able to dispose of the Leafs early in the game, but Toskala kept them in it - which is extremely important the greater scheme of things - not just in terms of that individual game.

The Leafs absolutely need Toskala to help Gustavsson along the way, both by being a mentor, and by leading the way on the ice, too. This game was something that Toskala can build some momentum with - and hopefully that in-fighting between goalies to compete for ice-time can grow from it. This is really the most important thing for the success of the team right now.

Toskala managed to not let in any awful goals, and that's a big step on growing not only his confidence in himself, but the confidence of the team and his coach, which will improve their play all over the ice. It's a good start, even though they lost.

Weekly scoring statistics

Top Leafs this week:
1) Phil Kessel - 4 goals, 1 assist, 5 points and 16 shots on goal over three games.
2) Jeff Finger - 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points and a plus-2 over three games. Very good for him.
3) Jonas Gustavsson - 2 starts, 1 win (against Detroit!), 61 saves and a .924 save percentage.

Notable - Toskala for stepping his game up, even if it were only for one game, right when the Leafs seem most desperate for him to turn his game around.

Leafs record this week: 1 win, 2 losses - 2 points. Overall record is 3-9-5, with 11 points leaving them in last place of their division and 14th in their conference and 29th overall in the league. Only place from here is UP, so ... we can look forward to that.

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