Off The Schneid


    I know, I know.  It’s just one win.

    But you have to admit, it still feels good.   Somewhat of a sense of relief is sweeping through Leafs Nation today.  A sense that, although there is still a long way to go, things are not at a total loss.   This team can find ways to win, and appears to be rounding into the sort of form envisioned by GM Brian Burke during a busy and much-hyped (over-hyped?) offseason.

    The sense that the team may be coming together as a unit is not just the afterglow from Monday’s 6-3 win over Anaheim speaking.  During the game against Vancouver on Saturday night, the Leafs played with a level of passion and energy which was previously not present, and although the end result was a (close) loss the team dominated the play throughout.

    Most encouraging was the carry-over; despite some concern there would be a letdown following the loss, the Leafs instead took confidence from that performance and it showed in Monday’s victory.   That is as good a sign as any that this team is finally starting to gel, to play together, and to play within the system that the coaching staff has been trying to implement.

    A few notes:

    • Puck pressure was one of the Leafs‘ strong points in this one.   The players able to create steady pressure throughout by committing to an aggressive forecheck, which created several opposition turnovers in the offensive and neutral zones.
    • Puck pursuit was also much better.  The Leafs played with a higher level of energy against Anaheim than they had in any other game, chasing down loose pucks and winning several key battles in the corners and along the boards.
    • What can you say about the goaltending?   Jonas Gustavsson absolutely robbed the Ducks on several scoring chances early when the game was close.    True, he still allowed three goals against, although it is hard to fault him for the first goal where Todd Marchant was knocked into him (sorry but I don’t buy the interference argument, that one is on Garnet Exelby), or the third goal which came on a terrific deflection by Corey Perry.    It may be just one start, but play like that from the goaltender is what will allow the players in front of him to have the confidence to take more high-risk, high-reward chances.
    • The powerplay was outstanding.  For a change, the opposition was in the box for the majority of the game (more on this in a moment), and the Leafs capitalized with the man advantage — which happens to be the one facet of their game that has been consistently good all season.   Niklas Hagman was deadly from just above the faceoff circle on his off wing, and Tomas Kaberle actually shot the puck for a change.   Good things happen when you fire the puck, Tomas, hope to see more of that in the near future.
    • The grinders executed to perfection last night.    Instead of running at people haphazardly and taking stupid penalties, the players picked their spots and drove the opposition completely off their game by employing aggressive – and relatively clean – physicality on the puck carriers.     By getting physical with the Ducks’ puck carriers, creating turnovers and subsequently maintaining puck control with good passing and well-executed line changes, the Leafs were able to frustrate their opponent into taking an astounding 17 penalties, most of which were of the unnecessary (read: reactionary) variety.   That, folks, is what truculence is all about.

    All in all, Monday’s win provided a show of the kind of game the Maple Leafs are capable of playing, and the style of play coach Ron Wilson has been attempting to instill this season.   Of course, none of this is to say that the Leafs are suddenly on the road to becoming a playoff team; the reality is, the rebuilding process is by no means close to completion.   But with efforts such as those we witnessed against Vancouver and Anaheim, the Maple Leafs will develop confidence in their game and will by no means be an easy opponent.

    It is that confidence — which begins in the net and extends outward from there — that will enable the team to win its fair share of games this season, and remain competitive in those which don’t go their way.   And figuring out how to compete  is the first step toward developing a core of players that will, down the road, be able lead a contending team into the playoffs.

    There may no cause to trumpet a parade, predict a playoff run, or expect even a .500 season just yet.    But the one thing we should all take away from the past two games is the steps this team has taken to play a more energetic, aggressive, and competitive game.   Success is predicated on the steps taken to reach a goal or a desired outcome, and it is clear the Maple Leafs have begun to take strides in the proper direction.   Here’s hoping they are able to continue the trend, and take further steps (perhaps starting with the PK?),  in the upcoming games against Dallas, Buffalo, and Montreal.