Toronto Finally On the Ups?

Sometimes, it’s all in how you look at things. Or maybe better, in how closely. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t made the playoffs the last six seasons. They had a house-on-fire start last season and then died a swift death. This year, they’re second in their division at the quarter mark and fifth in the conference. They also register near the top of the league in terms of goal production. They have some guys on fire, including Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Joffrey Lupul.

But that’s only half the story. Their goaltending is shaky, or perhaps more fairly, uncertain. The next great one, James Reimer, has been out since late October and is now day to day. He’s skating every day, and may come back December 3rd against the Bruins. Toronto plays the team twice in a row at home on the 30th and then in Beantown three days later.

In Reimer’s place, Jonas Gustavsson has compiled a respectable 7-4 record coming into Sunday night. He has only a mediocre GAA at 3.16 and a save percentage about as close to a nine as he could without getting over the line (.899), and teamed with him has been Ben Scrivens, a four-year Cornell man who has now spent a year in the minors and been called up to participate in eight games with the parent club. He has a record of 2-4-1 and a 2.96, with a save percentage of .904. Better numbers than the other guy’s in other words.

The performance of both goaltenders is partly to blame for the other side of the story in terms of those goals. The Leafs had 74 coming into Sunday night, when they played a 6pm start against the Ducks. But they had given up 73, for a differential of plus-one. The only other team in the top eight in the east with that kind of numbers is Washington, and they’re minus-three. Compare the first place team, the Pens, at plus-eighteen, and the second, the Bruins, an insane plus-twenty-eight. You read that right. The defending champs have scored 75 goals thus far and given up just 47.

In addition, the Toronto lineup is anything but entirely stable. They have used 29 guys thus far this season. Maybe more surprising given that their GM, Burke, put together an almost all-Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup in Anaheim is that 12 of his guys come out of US college hockey, and eight are Yankees. His days with the Ducks saw him filling the roster with guys from the Prairies, tough big dudes who weren’t afraid to punch the lights out of the opposition on a nightly basis.

That Anaheim team now, by the way, the Leafs’ opponent on Sunday night, is but a shadow of its old self. At least, that’s true as far as the record at present goes. The team says the right thing night after night, as has been well documented at IH, but does the wrong one. Sunday night against Toronto, they started out strong, held the puck with the Leafs, and scored the first goal, on the power play midway through the first period.

They let the lead go four minutes later, and then got scored on again nineteen seconds after that. How many times this year have the Ducks given up goals so close together that the announcer hasn’t even gotten to the first one before the second goes in? A bunch, and that tells you pretty much all you need to know about why the team is failing.

The Leafs scored again in the second period, and with the number at 3-1, the Ducks pressed some. With four minutes left in the period, the Getzlaf line hemmed the puck in the Leafs’ zone and pressured.

A minute later, Selanne grabbed a puck in his own end and dashed down the ice with it, forcing it behind the Leafs’ net. He lost it there, but it eventually went to the front of the net and Andrew Cogliano came in for a shot. This was the best chance of the period.

The Leafs are a more disciplined team than in years past, however. Joffrey Lupul said after the game that he and his linemates, particularly, have been drilled in defensive play. That, surprisingly, hasn’t affected his ability to put the puck in the net. He is currently tied with Jonathan Toews (who lit the Ducks up for five points on Friday afternoon) as the top scorer in the month of November. Lupul’s overall point total stands at one short of 30 right now.

Meanwhile, in the Anaheim net, Jonas Hiller was putting on a show with his right hand. For those of you reading back east and not familiar with the man, that’s his catching hand. He nabbed a low shot by Cody Franson early. Later, he came out, throwing his body at a shot and getting it high glove, against Philippe Dupuis.

Dupuis? He’s just one guy who is a near-nobody who is playing on this team right now. Joffrey Lupul commented on this situation after the game. “We talked about this from the start of the year,” he said. “That’s going to be a key for us. When someone goes down, another guy steps up and does the job. These guys have come up and done a great job.”

His coach also had some words about his fill-ins: “The guys who have come in have shown that they belong in the NHL too. Later on, we’ll have some tough decisions, but we can build a pretty balanced group of four lines who can go on the attack, hold onto the puck, and make plays. All we ask everybody who comes in is to understand what our identity is, grasp it, and play to it.”

Aside from the score being 3-1 Toronto by midway through the second, the game was relatively close. Statistically, too, that was true. The end of period two saw the shots at 22 Toronto, 17 Ducks. The home team had registered 17 hits to the Leafs’ 13. Each had given away six pucks. The Leafs were slightly ahead in the faceoff circle, but unlike a couple of days earlier, when a won faceoff had led to the game winning goal with Chicago in town, on this night, nothing significant had happened due to the draws.

Toronto came out in the third and acted like a team which knows how to shut it down. They had a scare early when Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan put a puck across the slot to Corey Perry, who just missed a redirect. The puck went off the outside of the net. It coulda-shoulda been 3-2. But before another whistle went, the Leafs dashed down the ice and on an identical play made it 4-1. The puck went from Lupul to Kessel to Bozak, who put it past Hiller on his left, just as Perry had tried to do to Gustavsson.

Perry made it 4-2 a few minutes later when the team kept the puck rotating in the Toronto end and he brought it to the front of the net, did a pull and drag, and put it up over the goalie’s short side shoulder.

Were the visitors worried? Toronto has a record of 8-0 when they lead going into the third period. “We’re one of the few teams that actually hasn’t blown a third-period lead,” the coach mentioned with pride after the game. “I think we’re pretty comfortable. We know what we have to do, and we’re getting better at it.”

The ability to hold a lead might say a lot about the dedication of the team, the grinders who are willing to pitch in to make it work. On that line, how about names like Joey Crabb, Joe Colborne, Jay Rosehill, and Matt Frattin. How about Korbinian Holzer. Never heard of them, right? Doesn’t matter, because Burke’s 2011 Leafs are like his 2007 Ducks. There are a bunch of guys on the roster who won’t be remembered for much except sacrifice, but it’s guys like that that win games, and, the Leafs are obviously hoping, a playoff berth. To mention the Stanley Cup would be premature, but that’s obviously in mind as well.

Late in the game, the Leafs were leading 4-2 with the Ducks on the power play. Ron Wilson praised his guys for not letting down in the situation. “Special teams got the job done, but I thought we skated really well.”

The coach further said that the Leafs’ strength has been on its power play (third in the league coming into the evening), but also in when (the timing) they’ve scored. “We’ve scored a number of them in the first period, when we’ve needed them,” he said, then elaborated, “Our power play has answered the bell. It was sharp all night.”

The Ducks pulled their goalie late in hopes of getting to within one, but it backfired in a moment symbolic of the season thus far in Anaheim. Luke Schenn scored his first of the year when he cleared a puck which went off Getzlaf at the Leafs’ blueline and rolled, slowly, down ice and into the empty net. 5-2 Leafs, lights out Anaheim.

Note
Brian’s new book, My Country Is Hockey, is out now.

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