#1. First off, a very general observation about the NHL. The West is the best. So far this season, the West is killing the East, winning 78 games to 58. It took me a while to calculate this but I have the West's record against the East at 78-42-16, while the East is 58-62-16 vs. the West. If we don't count the extra point for OT and shoot-out losses, it's a .426 winning percentage for the East compared to .574 for the West, and .485 compared to .632 if we add the point. That translates over 82 games to a 104 point season vs. an 80 point season. Why the West should be so dominant I don't know, and maybe it'll even out over the second half, but at this rate it will impact the final standings, and specifically the projected totals needed to make the playoffs. Rather then the expected 95 point plateau, teams in the West may have to break the 99-point barrier and have 100-point seasons or better in order to reach the post-season, while a team in the East may qualify for that 8th and final playoff spot with just 90 points, perhaps less. At the moment, 8th-seed in the East is held by Florida, with 37 points after 37 games, 15-15-7, exactly .500, and in the new NHL, the definition (or so we had presumed) of mediocre. I can't believe that 82 points will be enough to secure the last playoff spot in the East, but we're very close to the half-way point in the season and that's what we're on pace for.
#2. So now that .500 is the new .500 again, and not the challenging and awkward .579 that had momentarily usurped it, making the PLAYOFFS!!1 just got a whole lot easier for the Blue and White. For that reason, I'm adjusting my sidebar to show the winning percentages to reach 91 points from the beginning of the season and from where we are today. I may adjust it further if this trend of the West beating up on the East continues.
#3. The Buffalo Sabres, the Leafs next opponent, are the only team in the East with a really impressive record vs. the West. They're 6-0-0 against the opposing conference. Washington is 5-2-1. The Leafs are 3-6-1.
#4. What a weird schedule and what a month of hockey. We've already had the Bruins 3 times in 14 days, now we get the Sabers for the 2nd time in 4 days. We'll also see the Islanders and the Habs for a 2nd time each in December. The Leafs are currently 3 wins under .500 after 36 games, so with 5 games left in 2009, they'll have to go 4-1 against Buffalo, the Islanders, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Edmonton to get there before the month, and the year, (and the decade?) is out.
#5. A word about the goaltending situation: It's crystal clear who the starting goaltender is on this team. But not because of Vesa's terrible mistake* the other night in Buffalo. Gustavsson's numbers are simply superior, by leaps and bounds. The Monster has run his SV% now up to .907, which is really impressive given all that he has had to deal with this season. Meanwhile Toskala's languishes at .870, the worst in the NHL. Consider that Gustavsson has now seen 14 more shots against, yet Vesa has given up 16 more goals. Each goalie has played 18 games. Those numbers aren't going to turn around. A 40-point differential on SV% amounts to 1 goal for every 25 shots. Given that the Leafs have surrendered 1089 shots, or roughly 30.25 a game, the difference then between Gustavsson and Toskala in net is over a goal per game. Under the Helmet of Slava Duris has an excellent breakdown of the stark contrast between the Leafs' netminders effectiveness when they need it most - on the penalty kill.
*(For what it's worth, I thought there was quite an over-reaction in Leafs-Nation to the Vesa screw up Friday. Yes, it was absolutely brutal, horrible and unacceptable - one of the worst goals I've ever seen. But that's all it was. Just one goal in a game we probably weren't going to win anyhow. Nobody died. People make mistakes and those people have to live with those mistakes. It's nothing for us, as fans, who've seen pucks over the line that didn't count, and pucks that no one saw over the line that did, and goaltender interference penalties that go uncalled, and dubious penalty shots awarded, and at least 3 phantom high-sticks, and on and on and on, not to mention Alfredsson from behind on Tucker, nor The High-Stick That Really Ruined Everything. It was a terribly embarrassing goal, and I'm sure no one feels worse about it then Toskala. Mostly I feel bad for the Vesa 'cause now the illusion has been shattered. He's not going to be considered a good goalie ever again unless he wins the Stanley Cup standing on his head under a constant rainstorm of burning garbage. Still, as fans, I think it's better if we turn our attention and energy toward ridicule and comedy, rather then anger and hate. It's a sad state of affairs for Toskala, but by acquiring Gustavsson, Burke has ensured that we're not at the mercy of one player's abilities. We can laugh about it, and so we should.)
#6. Tomas Kaberle continues to impress. Not only did he score a nice goal on Saturday night, the winner as it turned out thanks to Gustavsson's shut-out, but Kabby was also the first man to go after Boychuk that set off the scrum following the hit on Stajan. Good for Kaberle, showing some guts and coming to the aid of his friend and teammate. I'm not going to moan about it not being a clean hit, though. It was fine. Stajan needs to keep his head up, and I think Kabby knew it was a bit of a suicide-pass as soon as he let it go. I don't think Boychuk was trying to kill Stajan, but he popped him pretty good. Could have been worse. When I compare it to the famous Stevens hit on Lindros, or Bell's hit on Alfie, it doesn't seem that bad or out of line. Still, I was glad to see Tomas sticking up for his mate.
#7. Even better, I was really glad to see that Stajan wasn't too badly hurt and eventually returned to the Leafs' bench. Not that I'm big on unnecessary bravado or machismo, but when a player gets hit like that and leaves the ice in a bloody mess and then returns to the bench and tells his teammates he's ready to battle on, it gives them a huge lift. Did you know that Saturday night was Stajan's birthday? Yup, Matty turned 26 and got smashed, but not the way he expected. He then received the gift of having his teammates stand up for him, and returned the favour with his own display of guts and courage.Happy Birthday, Stajan! With love from Kabby, Kessel, Poni, and Komi, and the rest of the gang.