Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Word Is Leaf: October

Well, it's been an interesting month for sure. A 4-0-0 start had lots of people talking positively, but now a 1-4-1 record since, including back-to-back shutout losses to close out the month, has silenced a lot of that enthusiasm. Lots of questions remain about the team's true identity, as the offence is unable to provide a reliable answer. The Leafs continue to puzzle observers, going from a team that couldn't or wouldn't lose at the beginning of the season, to a team that can't or won't score against above-average goaltending. Here's a recap of the best quotes of the month:

“If you go the way training camp went, I think Caputi and Hanson could both make a real good argument that this isn’t a fair result."
-Brian Burke

"This business is cutthroat, and it's no secret."
-sympathetic Marlies teammate, Jeff Finger

“He got a call from the governor on this one. He got a reprieve."
-Burke on the near-execution of Mitchell

“Not going to try to kill everyone the first shift.”
-Mike Komisarek alters his approach

“The goal was unbelievable. Everything a little boy in Cambridge pretending he was a Maple Leaf could ask for."
-Tim "Legend" Brent scores the Leafs first goal of the season

"Looking at this game, this is one where they tie it last year. This time because of his great saves, we get the win.”
-Wilson on goaltending, after the first game

“We need solid goaltending and not lose sleep over who’s starting, or who’s going to play, and can we get through the first five minutes without letting in a soft goal? Those are things we’re not worrying about now.”
-Wilson continues to talk about goaltending after the first game.

"We play simple. We work hard. We listen to the coach. We shoot the puck and play aggressive.”
-Mikhail Grabovski talks to reporters like a machine-gun talks to a battlefied

“Sitting out a few shifts is a lot louder than my voice. The bench screams.”
-Ron Wilson after sitting Kessel

"They're really real."
-Colby Armstrong when asked how "real" the team's wins feel.

“That’s a question that my granddaughter would ask,”
-Wilson when asked if he is pleased with the team’s start.

"The Toronto Sun has great value if you own a puppy or a parakeet."
-Brian Burke

“That’s awesome. I’m in the record books for something!”
-MacArthur, the first player in the history of the Leafs to score in each of his first four games. And now Jeremy "3 goals in 3 games" Williams will just be known as what's-his-name.

“And anybody who tells you being snake-bit doesn’t suck is lying to you.”

"I don't care what Dwyane Roloson does, I care about our team."

“You can always get better at anything you do."
-The Mike Brown Attitude

“We could have put our heads down, stopped skating, stopped playing. We could have found a way to lose. Instead, we found a way to win.”
-Giguere is awesome.

"August 15 was probably the best day in my summer. I was really glad I stayed here.” -Tomas Kaberle

"The off-season was long, the summer was long, there was a lot of stuff in the papers, blah, blah, blah. That’s not what players are looking for, we’re looking for two points.”

"No one is going to come in and get us out of this. It’s the guys in this room that will get us out of this and we’re confident we will.”
-Dion Phaneuf

"No, we will not rush Kadri... I want to get Kadri ready to play 10 years in the NHL, not 10 games."

"You don't stand and wait for something to happen. It's my job to make something happen."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Maple Leafs Halloween 2010

So maybe you've noticed I've updated my sidebar recently and added a few things. Near the bottom is a list of my top 5 most read posts of all time. Yup, that's right, the number one - far and away - is Maple Leafs Halloween, a post I wrote 2 years ago. I noticed last year around this time a sudden huge upsurge in hits on my blog directly related to that Halloween post. This October, the same thing is happening. So I've decided to do another and hopefully this one will be even more succesful then the last.

As Halloween rolls around, take a good look at the trick-or-treaters that come to your door, 'cause you never know, one of them might be your favourite Maple Leaf under that costume. Here are some hints to help you recognize your Leafs in disguise:

Clarke MacArthur

Ninja at a bargain price.

Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel

Doesn't need explaining. Or maybe it does a little.

Mike BrownGonna show you what Brown can do for you if he can just get his finger in the doorway. Oh ya, and his boxing skills could use a little work.

Tomas KaberleData was always my favourite Star Trek character and there's something about Kabby's calm, efficient, emotionless precision that makes me think he'd do very well as a Starfleet officer under the right Captain. (p.s. Phaneuf hates it when you call him Jean-Luc.)

Anything's better then 2007 when the gang went out wearing the costumes Paul Maurice had suggested.It was a sad night with a lot drinking. It was a sad season with a lot of crying.

Freddie Sjostrom...gets to be Chewbacca of course. This costume doesn't look too hard to put together. Maybe get Grandma to help with the sewing and stitching. And if Sjostrom gets to be Chewbacca then...

Colby Armstrong...probably wants to be Han Solo. It's better then the figure skater costume Wilson had picked out for him, but it means he'll be frozen in carbonite for 4-6 weeks. The good news is: I can start saying Luca Caputi on a regular basis again.

Mike Komisarek...will walk home from the practice rink in his usual way, oblivious to the date on the calender.

Mikhail Grabovski

...has the scariest costume on the team. He's crazy for pineapples! is now a serious understatement.

Nikolai Kulemin

...keeps the Kool-Aid Man tradition alive for another year.

Cliff Fletcher

...makes an excellent spooky Caretaker.

and Mike Zigomanis... is the Zig-Zag Man out on a date with Matt Stajan's mom!

Have a safe and happy Halloween everybody!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You Win Some

Try to keep things in perspective. I guess that's the moral of the story.

Last night, Colton Orr's game-winning goal was admittedly one of the most abhorrent, vile, revolting - and hilarious - missed calls that any sleazy, insecure reporter with no friends can ever remember.

Here's some perspective: That's Versteeg making contact with the puck, right around cross-bar height, but well below shoulder height, which is all it needs to be for him to legally knock it to the ice and then legally play it into the net. Which he does. Except - no goal. The Leafs do eventually tie the game, but then the Islanders score on the powerplay in overtime after the Leafs are assessed - get this - a goaltender interference penalty.

One of the great calamities in recent NHL history.

Imagine dancing around like their team deserved the goal and the win! It's amazing these nitwits can live with themselves.

Here's a remarkbly similar goal which proves that pitchforking a goalie into the net is indeed a legal tactic, and I think that the Leafs are not employing it nearly enough.

I love GRBRZRKR's spirited reaction in that one compared to Toskala's stunning apathy from the previous year. Clearly, and so dishearteningly, we kept the wrong goalie two summers ago. (Glove tap to Jared and Clawson for reminding me of these two plays and making me find them.)

Here's one that's eerily similar to Tim Brent's second goal. Puck in goalie's glove. Goalie's glove in the net behind the goalpost. Except - no goal.

Oh well. That's the way she goes. What goes around comes around. Sometimes the lucky bounces don't go your way, but it all balances out right? Over an infinite number of years? I can wait that long. I guess I'd rather have all my bad luck when we have a bad team and it doesn't matter so much, and then collect on the good karma when our team is a contender. I really hope that's what's happening now.

This is my favourite way to get screwed. It's called Intent to Blow. It means it doesn't matter if the puck goes in the net before the whistle, if the referee, in retrospect, wished it hadn't.

The point of all this is, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get screwed. No one should ever act like Leaf fans don't know what that's like. And most Leaf fans are aware they aren't the only victims of NHL ineptitude. Seems every team gets their (un)fair share. Just search on youtube for "disallowed goal NHL" and you'll find every team has their own little collection. Some of them are astounding, and some impact so heavily, like Brett Hull's skate in the crease, that they become a part of the folklore that drives their underdog image, their sense of destiny and purpose, or their desire to win.

Every year there's controversy, and every team has their list of complaints. But our list belongs to us and it's our right to vent and scream when we feel cheated. We'll defend the home side, same as anyone else, and so we should, and so should they. That's all part of cheering for your team and not being a passive, neutral observer.

It's part of the game and it happens to everyone, but it always sucks when it happens to you. It's senseless to dwell on it, but it takes more then a few make-up calls or lucky breaks the other way for things to feel repaired and fair and square. Eventually the frustration will pass, and winning definitely helps, but for certain dubious and unscrupolous events, only a Stanley Cup could make us ever truly forget.
You win some, you lose some. And what goes around comes around, we can only hope.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Seven Defenceman Seven Games

One of the things I was looking forward to most during the summer was seeing the Leafs best six defenceman healthy and suiting up together for the first time. As the Leafs jumped out to a four-and-oh start, there was no disappointment, only promise. True, small problems were identified (Komisarek in the first game, Gunnarsson in the 4th), but overall the defence looked terrific through those first four wins.

Then, in game five, a line-up change was made - 7th defenceman Lebda in place of the sophomore Gunnarsson. Personally, I thought it was too early to break up a defensive unit that I'd waited 17 years to see. Especially one with a perfect record. And lo and behold, the wheels came off. An overtime loss to the Islanders, and then a one-goal loss to the Rangers, and so Gunnarsson was re-inserted for Lebda the martyr. The defence then responded with their worst showing of the year, a 5-2 mistake-filled drubbing to the Flyers.

I'm not here to point out individual errors or bad decisions - that's somebody else's gig and I'd rather not get too specific. By now, all the defenders have made a blunder or two, with the exception of Luke Schenn who's having an outstanding start. Instead, here's a simple overview of the seven Leafs defenceman and their performances thus far.

Kaberle. A good start but not great. His attention to detail seems improved and his skating and stickhandling are as smooth as ever. I'm noticing a trend now, when Kaberle gets the puck between the blue lines, opposition players just completely backing off and giving him an uncontested lane up to their zone. Effectively, Kabby can just waltz his way into the other teams territory but the side-effect is that they're taking away his first pass by guarding everyone else but him. I think he should start driving the net and seeing how far he can go.

Kabby has 4 assists to lead the defenders, all on the powerplay, no goals, and no points at even strength. He is a moderately surprising and pleasing +2 and has yet to take a penalty. The statistic that troubles me the most is the 10 shots-on-goal. Kaberle needs to shoot more, as it seems to me, the powerplay was most effective and dangerous when Kabby was firing the puck most often - the first two games of the season and the last 2 games of the pre-season. Right now Kaberle is averaging less then two shots per game - I'd like to see him somewhere between 3 and 4.

Kaberle leads the team in ice-time per game (23:42) after 7 games.

To summarize: Kabby playing well, needs to shoot more.

Luke Schenn is kinda awesome. In his 3rd year, he appears to blossoming into a complete defencman ahead of schedule. Three assists, all at even-strength, and a +2, Schenn is also tied for 2nd among hits with Freddie Sjostrom, just one below team leader Phaneuf. Schenn's defensive play has been rock-solid and his puck-movement on the transition has been eye-opening. In the midst of the most talented blue line the Leafs have seen in years, Luke Schenn is the one playing nearest his full-potential, and impressing the most.

The only knock against him, and I'm not sure it counts, Luke leads the defenders thus far in minor penalties taken.

To summarize: Luke Schenn is kinda awesome.

The Captain usually logs more ice-time then any other Leaf, and has in 4 out of 7 games, though he saw his ice-time drastically reduced in the last game against the Flyers. Of all the defenders, Dion seems to be struggling the most, though much of the weight of that comes from his last performance. Offensively, Phaneuf isn't lighting it up yet, just 3 assists, 1 at even-strength, and yet to hit the back of the net. He has hit the net 24 times, most among defenders and 2nd among all skaters only to Kessel's 26. I have no stats for missing the net, but judging by how many times he's hit the net, I'd guess that he's taken about 72 shots from the blue-line thus far.

His 12 penalty minutes is the most among the defenceman, but that's largely due to the 10-minute misconduct he received at the end of the Ottawa game. His 24 hits is the most on the team.

Most troubling is his team worst minus 5, though again that's heavily weighted by the minus 3 he earned in Philadelphia. That last game was a complete dud for Dion who looked terrible on more then one goal against and was held without a shot on goal for the first time this season.

Personally, my biggest complaint with Dion is how ill-prepared he seems for passes. I'm not refering to Briere's goal, on which Kaberle shares equal blame, but often this season I've noticed Phaneuf seem startled by a puck coming his way and reacting way to slow to deliver a one-timer or continue a dangerous looking play.

To summarize: The Leafs most important defenceman has thus far underwhelmed, but the season is young and there's a C on his sweater for a reason.

I can't say I really notice Francois Beauchemin a whole lot, despite his high ice-time totals, which is an indication that he's doing his job. I've caught him looking clumsy a couple times now, but as I've said, everyone but Schenn seems to have made a brutal mistake or two by now. Overall, I think Beauchemin has been moving the puck well and plays hard against the oppositions best players. Beauchemin's best attribute is consistency.

Beauchemin scored an important goal in Pittsburgh and picked up his first assist in the last game in Philadelphia. The game against Pittsburgh was Beauchemin's strongest of the year as he led the team in ice-time that night and helped preserve a 1-goal lead through the final 20 minutes against the dangerous Penguin offence.

Beauchemin is now a minus 1 on the season, after starting out +2 through 4 games, but then going minus 1 for three consecutive games.

To summarize: Reliable defender, but I'd love to see more games like the one in Pittsburgh.

Komisarek has fallen into the 5th spot, mostly due to Schenn's elevated play and Komi's inability to click with Kaberle. Despite the reduced ice-time and a few shaky moments with the puck, I think Komisarek is doing fine in the 5-spot and is starting to find his game. His aggressiveness seems well-controlled as he's picked up just one minor penalty in the first 7 games. He's also contributed 4 points, a goal and 3 assists, all at even-strength.

Komisarek is a +3, best among the defenders.

Komisarek's average time-on-ice is 14:07, lowest among the defenders.

To summarize: Komisarek should have more ice-time.

Carl Gunnarsson is having a rough start. The Sophomore Jinx seems to be upon him, but maybe he's just getting it out of the way early. Gunnarsson hasn't excelled through the pre-season and the first 3 games of this season, and then saw his ice-time dramatically reduced in the Leafs 4th game, their last win of the season. After sitting two games, Gunnarsson's return was less then spectacular as the Leafs were humbled by the Flyers. For certain, the start to this season has been a humbling experience for Gunnarrson.

Confidence is something that doesn't come that easy,” said Gunnarsson. “Once you lose it, it's tough to get it back.”

Um. Uh-oh.

The positive side is that Gunnarsson's stats don't look awful other then he hasn't contributed yet to the offence with a point. He hasn't looked horrific, just not as good as the Gunnarsson we're used to, but again, perhaps that could be said of any of our defenders except Schenn, though it's probably truest for Gunnar. The Sophomore Slump, or whatever you want to call it, if such a thing exists, might end tomorrow (or tonight, depending on when you're reading this, maybe even yesterday), and we know that Gunnarsson's potential is to be an equal contributor on a dynamic and highly talented blue line.

To summarize: Give him time.
Brett Lebda must die!!!6

No, just kidding. But he's not off to a great start and hasn't won many fans in his first two appearances in a Leafs uniform. In fact, he unwittingly walked into the scape-goat's shoes when Wilson made the fatal line-up change that jinxed our perfect record.

"If I go in there and we lose, I don’t know what’s going to happen."

Well, we'll all blame you, that's all. No, just kidding. If we lose because of a ridiculous goaltender-interference penalty in overtime to give the Islanders a 4-on-3 powerplay and they score on that powerplay to end our perfect run, and you were the bozo that was sitting in the box, then uh-huh, we might go out to the shed and find our old rusty pitchfork and stare at it in the moonlight for a while, until, in the silence of the cool night air, the word "Lebda" emerges with a bitter whisper from cracked and weathered lips. That could happen or did.

All kidding aside, despite Lebda's unspectacular debut, in two games he is yet to be on the ice for a goal against, but has picked up a minor in each game. He hasn't contributed anything to the offence and his time-on-ice has been equal to Gunnarsson's, only slightly more then Komi's average.

Imagine if Lebda had tipped that shot into the goal instead of falling awkwardly into Roloson? One can wonder. That's what you get for taking Todd Gill's number, I guess.

My feeling is, as long as the defenders are healthy and none of them is seriously struggling and the Leafs are winning, then the best six defenders should be in the line-up as much as possible. And that means No Lebda. It's a rare occasion to have six defenceman this good (or expensive) and the players should be able to have a bad game or two individually and work things out on the ice. Especially during winning streaks, it's a lot to ask of Lebda to step in and replace one of these guys if they're only struggling and not injured, and it raises the temperature in the room unnecessarily.

To summarize: Lebda-rage takes glancing blow at Wilson.

And on we go. It's only 7 games. Lots more in store with 75 games to go.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Leaf of the Week: 10/20/10 - Phil Kessel

I've added a new feature to my sidebar - the Leaf of the Week. I'll try to update it every Wednesday and occasionally write a post to compliment it. Last week's Leafs of the Week for the first week of the season was the Assist Ninja-turned-Sniper Ninja, Clarke MacArthur, who scored 4 goals, including 2 game-winners in the first 3 games. Congratulations Clarke for the great start!

The Leaf of the Week for the second week of the season is none other then the Mighty Phil Kessel. In 2 games, Kessel has scored 3 of the Leafs 5 goals, and assisted on another. Two of his 3 goals were on the powerplay - one of those breaking Roloson's shutout and tying the game with 2:05 left in the 3rd, and the other for the game-winner in OT against the Rangers.
3 points in the standings directly related to Phil Kessel's incredible release. When you talk about Kessel, you really are talking about vital contributions. And without them we'd be in a completely different boat.
Kessel's 7 points have given him an early lead in team scoring and it's doubtful that anyone will catch him now that he's ahead. His 4 points in 2 games is an outstanding response to the short benching he received last week against Pittsburgh.

I had a bad game and I said I wouldn’t do it again.”

Well, bad games are bound to happen from time to time, but that's the kind of determination and character that leads to MVP seasons. With a solid supporting cast in place, every shift from Kessel now has the potential to be a game-breaker and the difference between winning and losing. It's an opportunity for Kessel to really shine and grab the glory, and thus far, he's making the most of it.

Congratulations Phil Kessel, our second Leaf of the Week!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Our Biggest Game Of The Season

I'm glad you're here. There's something I wanted to show you. This is a list of all the teams that have started an NHL season 4-and-oh since the lockout.


Nashville 8 wins -- finished 4th in the West
Ottawa 6 wins -- finished 1st in the East


Buffalo 10 wins — finished 1st in the East
Dallas 5 wins -- finished 6th in the West
Minnesota 6 wins -- finished 7th in the West


Minnesota 5 wins -- finished 3rd in the West
Ottawa 5 wins -- finished 7th in the East


Buffalo 4 wins -- finished 10th in the East
Edmonton 4 wins -- finished 11th in the West
Minnesota 4 wins -- finished 9th in the West
NY Rangers 5 wins -- finished 7th in the East
San Jose 4 wins -- finished 1st in the West


Calgary 4 wins -- finished 10th in the West

The Leafs are the first team this season to reach 4 wins, off to their best start since 1993-4, but what does it mean to go 4-0-0? Nothing. The next game is the one that really matters. In fact, it might be the most important game of the season.

Behold: In five seasons since the lockout, only 13 teams have gone 4-and-oh to start an NHL campaign. Interestingly, the Minnesota Wild did it 3 times consecutively, winning 6 out of the gate in 2006, 5 in a row in 2007, and 4 in a row in 2008. The Senators have done it twice, winning 6 in a row to start the season in 2005 and 5 in a row in 2007. The longest win streaks to start a season belong to Buffalo (10 wins, 2006) and Nashville (8 wins 2005).

Now here's what I want you to notice: Of these 13 teams, only 5 failed to continue their winning ways into their 5th game, AND of those 5 teams (all from the last 2 seasons) that couldn't attain 5-and-oh perfection, 4 of them finished the season OUT of the playoffs. Their fast starts were all for naught eventually and didn't help them get into the post-season, nor were they an accurate indication of forthcoming success. In 2008, Buffalo, Edmonton, Minnesota, and San Jose all won their first 4 games of the season then lost their 5th and only San Jose went on to make the playoffs. Last year, Calgary was the only team to start 4-and-oh and they finished 10th and traded Dion Phaneuf. I simply can't imagine that happening but there it is.

However, there's a flipside: Of the 8 teams that managed to win their 5th game in a row to start the season and keep their perfect record intact to that point, all of them made the playoffs in those respective seasons. Since the lockout, NO TEAM HAS GONE 5-AND-OH AND MISSED THE PLAYOFFS. It seems to be a line that - if crossed - you can safely say, this team is legit. This team is more then just another playoff-pretender This team is "For Real".

I have to admit something: After the last pre-season game, I looked at the calender, and this was the game that worried me the most. I didn't tell anybody this, but I silently predicted to myself that the Leafs would win their first 4 games and then lose to the Islanders. It just seemed like it would be so typical. Now that half the premonition has come true, I'm really worried.

It's the perfect set-up for a let-down. A 4-game winning streak, coming home, fans excited, an uninteresting weaker team coming in on a 3-game losing streak (I wrote this ahead of time - I'm assuming the Islanders are going to lose to Colorado tonight), a Monday night, AND it's only on Leafs-TV. If this was any other season, this game is a guaranteed loss, no question.

But if this was any other Leafs team, they would have found a way to lose the opener. Instead, Giguere got his left pad on the puck in the dying seconds and the Leafs got 2 points. And if this were any other Leafs team, they would have surely blown the lead in the 3rd against the Penguins, being outshot 9-2 in the period. But they held on and won the game. And really, if this year's team in any way resembled any from the past 5 seasons since the lockout, then after squandering a 2-goal lead in the 3rd period (which seemed so very much like them) they most certainly would have folded or faded or had an unlucky bounce go against them, let an opponent's dirty trick get the better of them, let the referee screw them, or simply crumble and choke under the pressure. And lose. And then they'd console themselves by talking about picking up a valuable point and just doing the things they do well for a full 60 minutes and moral victories don't count in the standings but at least there are positives we can take and move forward, just need to concentrate on the little things, we're behind the 8-ball now and it's going to be an uphill battle but we still believe in ourselves, if we could just get a timely save and with a bit of better luck... who knows?

Nope. That's not us. Not anymore and never again we can only hope. Instead we're finding ways to win. We've scored the first goal 3 times out of 4. We've held a one goal lead in the 3rd period to win in regulation - twice. We've yet to surrender 30 shots in a game. We've won 2 games where we badly outshot our opponents and we've won 2 games despite being outshot. We've won 2 on the road and 2 at home. Our penalty kill has given up just one goal. Our powerplay has struck 3 times, including a perfectly executed 4-on-3 for an overtime winner. Thus far, this Leafs team is anything but typical.

Komisarek has 3 points and just 2 penalty minutes. Kaberle is a +3 and 2nd in time-on-ice.

"We could have put our head down and stopped skating and stopped trying," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. "Some teams would find a way to do that and find a way to lose. We found a way to win."

And that's why Monday's contest against the Islanders is oh so important and why, for the Leafs, 4-and-oh is only a good-but-not-yet-great beginning, and why our 5th game is easily the biggest game of the season so far. Consider it a must-win. History and statistics suggest we've got our backs up against the wall here but we gotta stick together, work harder, and prove that we're a much better team then our 4-0-0 record indicates and make sure we win that next game and keep our hopes alive.
Go Leafs Go!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Whose Province? Our Province


I can only assume that's how it felt to be an Ottawa Senator Saturday night. Unprepared, uninspired, unprofessional. Maybe not by their usual standards, but easily when compared to ours.

These new-look Leafs are all business right now. This team is better prepared to start the season then any that I can remember since the lockout. Back to back 2-0 leads within the first ten minutes clearly illustrate that point. Obviously last year's dreadful experience out of the gate is a lesson taken seriously and has given this team greater focus and commitment, and so far, it's giving them the edge. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes for other teams to catch up to full stride, but for now, the Leafs look like they've hit the ground running, like a team built exactly for that purpose.

No More BoOBbB.

Ya, I couldn't quite get myself to do another Battle of Ontario Blow-by-Blow post. I wonder if anyone is sad about that. I messed around with the idea of doing the series again and even took notes in my usual way, but interacting with my 3-year old daughter is insanely more complicated then when she was 2 and 1, and as such, I can't help but miss whole minutes of the game here and there. Also, I'm less inspired to do the BoOBbB again since they're not that interesting to read and take a lot of time to do.

So, sorry about that sports fans, that series is toast, but I can still give you a general breakdown of the game from the notes that I did take. We'll see how that goes. Maybe I'll make that a new series. I'll call it, borschevsky's Battle of Ontario Breakdown (belated).

borschevsky's Battle of Ontario Breakdown (belated); bBoOB(b) I

The crowd seems pumped. Just after the first minute, Go Leafs Go! chant fills the building.

Nikolai Kulemin's goal: (1:38)

Kulemin opens the scoring just a minute and 38 into the game, set up by MacArthur, but the key to this play is Grabovski's work hustling the lazy Spezza off the puck behind the Senators goal. No assist for Grabbo but he created the opportunity and deserves some credit.

At the five minute mark, Senators still don't have a shot on goal, Leafs have four.

Kessel's goal: (7:51)

Once again, speed and hustle create a scoring chance for the Leafs. Phillips shot from the point is blocked by Versteeg who then simply outskates the other Senators defender down the ice and drives the net for a shot on goal. Kessel goes to the net after the rebound and Phillips is unable to tie up his stick. Kessel's quick hands make no mistake and the Leafs lead 2-0.

At the 10 minute mark of the first, everything is going the Leafs way. They seem to be determined to control the tempo while the Sens seem disinterested.

The Leafs powerplay gets to go to work a couple times in the second half of the first and while they have great puck possession, they don't do enough to get shots on goal. Kessel continues to use his speed to create scoring opportunities and a flurry of action at the end of the period while the Leafs are on their second powerplay nearly puts them up 3-0. Final shots for the first 20 minutes of play are 16-6 in favour of Toronto. Kaberle on the ice for nearly half the period (9:39), leading all skaters.

Senators are lucky to only be down by 2.

Second Period

Leafs start the 2nd well, recording the first 2 shots on goal.

At 15:47, just when the Sens are getting a little momentum, Spezza gets called for a lazy, stupid hooking penalty. I used to hate Spezza, but I'm really beginning to like him. He makes me laugh a lot. I'm so glad he plays for Ottawa. He's gonna destroy that team.

The Leafs don't score on the powerplay but continue to dominate. The Grabbo-Kulemin-MacArthur line is all over the puck and Kessel's speed continues to create chances out of thin air. Shots are 25-10 for the Leafs and at this point I start thinking the Leafs can't let the Senators get the next goal.

MacArthur's Goal: (11:42)
Komisarek pokes the puck past Phillips at the Leafrs blue line and Grabbo is away to the races with Kulemin and MacArthur on a 3-on-2 while Philips tries to catch up. Pretty simple play; Grabbo passes it to MacArthur in the high slot and the wrister beats Leclair. Leafs lead 3-0 and grab the Senators by the neck. MacArthur's second goal of the season already and his second point of this game.

At 9:23 of the 2nd, Armstrong takes the first Leaf penalty. Gets his stick up on Carkner in the offensive zone which seemed especially unnecessary when Sjostrom was doing excellent forechecking on that shift. Leafs have no trouble killing the penalty off.

Bozak takes the next penalty for tripping, but sloppy play muddles the attack for the Senators and after the first minute they appear to give up on the powerplay. As the penalty expires, Go Leafs Go! chant begins.

With two minutes left in the 2nd, shots are 30-12 and the Leafs are up 3-0. Pretty sweet.

As the clock ticks down the final 20 seconds, Tim Brent carries the puck neatly through the neutral zone and makes sure the final seconds wind down in the Ottawa zone and not Toronto's. Little things like that, smoothly executed, make big differences.

This one feels over with 20 minutes to go. Not much of a fight from the Senators for two periods. Shots are 31-12.

3rd Period

Less then two minutes in, Senators take the first penalty of the period; Armstrong drawing Kelly into holding the stick. More good work by Armstrong and Sjostrom on that shift and this time it pays off with a powerplay.

37 seconds later, Gonchar is called for hooking and the Leafs get to enjoy a 2-man advantage.

The Leafs had a goal waved off at the end of that sequence when, as they held possession during the delayed-penalty to Gonchar, Kaberle backhands it into the goal but because Bozak is still in the net after being hauled down, the referee waves it off immediately.

It only takes the Leafs 26 seconds to put the puck in the net again.

Versteeg's goal: (2:44)
Phaneuf makes a great play to keep the puck in, allowing Bozak to control it, eventually sending it back to the Captain who transfers it along to Kaberle and then to Kessel. Kessel sets up in the high slot and then feeds Kaberle for the one-timer and the puck grazes Versteeg and goes in. 4-0. Feels like a romp.

Tim "Legend" Brent's goal: (5:39)
Not sure what Pascal Leclaire was thinking here. Great reaction by Brent. Referee won't make the call but Brent looks pretty convinced.

Replay shows Leclaire's glove with the puck in it all the way over the line in the net. This decision takes a ridiculous amount of time for something that's obvious to everyone. Lots of smile between Tim Brent and Kessel during all of this but the crowd is getting restless. Eventually they signal the goal, Tim Brent's second in two games, and I can't help wondering if it took that long only because it's the Leafs and if they gave in only because the score was already 4-0. Baffling.

The rest of the period features a few skirmishes and the lone Sens' goal. I don't really do breakdowns of either.

Brown vs. Neil (6:04)

Orr vs. Carkner (8:59)

Versteeg vs. Fisher (15:49)

Final score 5-1. Shots are 38-18. Leafs demolish the Sens. Kaberle and Phaneuf finish equal in ice-time at 23:39.
So there you have it, a very belated review of round one in this season's Battle of Ontario. Sorry it took so long, but at least now you have it fresh in your mind to take into our next game, Wednesday night, against Pittsburgh. Hopefully the Leafs can build on such a positive win and keep a steady focus without getting overconfident too quickly.

If the Leafs can duplicate the effort and performance given against the Sens, a three-and-oh start is easily achievable, even with the formidable Penguins up next.

Go Leafs Go.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


At the end of the 2008-9 season, I wrote a post that was probably the best post I've ever written. Somehow, despite a totally inglorious season, I found a way to celebrate the Top 10 games of the season. This past April, no such post would be forthcoming. Last year was so joyless I doubt I could write a Top 3 games of the season. Instead, I vowed to write a post chronicling the worst games of the season, though I soon realized that I'd underestimated how painful that journey would be.

I abandoned the idea (and abandoned blogging altogether for a while).

Yet still I have this nagging sensation, that it's somehow important, maybe even only on a personal level, however difficult, to take this journey. To revisit the past and acknowledge where we're coming from. It won't be easy, but before we begin a new chapter, it feels necessary.

Top 3 Toughest Maple Leafs Losses, 2009-10

November 19, 2009: Carolina 6 Toronto 5, SO

On the road against the hated Hurricanes and Paul Maurice, the Leafs were flying out of the gate. Just 61 seconds into the game, Ponikarovsky strips his man and Matt Stajan bangs it home (uh-huh) to put the Leafs on the board early. Before the period was out, Stempniak and Grabovski would add to the lead, and Toronto would go to the dressing room after 20 minutes comfortably up 3-0.

The lead and the shutout held up for another 16 minutes into the 2nd until Carolina suddenly struck twice in a 43 second span in the final four minutes to bring them within one.

A powerplay goal by Ponikarovsky early in the 3rd gave the Leafs a two-goal lead again but less then 4 minutes later, Tim Gleason cut the lead again to one. Then - drama! Ian White, who'd already cleaned Eric Cole's clock earlier in the period, is called for a phantom high-stick that never struck a Hurricanes player. With White in the box, Carolina ties the game, Tim Gleason again, scoring the powerplay goal.

But White would not be denied. I dare say that this game might have been Ian White's best in a Maple Leafs uniform, and that's part of what makes this game so sad. With just 30 seconds on the clock, White plays the hero and scores what should have been a certain game-winner. Unfathomably, it was still not to be. With the goalie out, and despite the Leafs sending the puck all the way down the ice behind the Carolina goal line with less then 20 seconds to go, Eric Cole is somehow there to tie the game with 3 seconds left and drive a stake through the hearts of those foolish enough to believe.

In overtime, our hapless Leafs appear to score, certainly the puck entered the Carolina goal, but the referee waved it off because, well, y'know, he just didn't like that goal. Too ugly. So we go to a shoot-out instead. Ruutu scores. Kessel misses. Jokinen scores. Stempniak misses.

Game Over.

The Vancouver Canucks came to town to close out the month of January. Last season the Leafs had a terrible history of giving up the first goal, but ironically, on this night it's the Leafs who come flying out of the gate again. Just 52 seconds into the game, Phil Kessel opens the scoring, and then just under 3 minutes later, Kessel adds another to give the Leafs an early 2-goal lead. With just 5 seconds left in the period, Jamal Mayers puts the exclamation on his trade request, and the Leafs have a comfortable 3-0 lead heading to the dressing room. Amazingly, Luongo is chased from the net after surrendering 3 goals on just 8 shots, and our old nemesis, Andrew Raycrap is between the pipes to start the 2nd.

Everything was going so well. How could it go so wrong?

Mid-way through the 2nd, Alex Burrows scores a shorthanded goal to give the Canucks some life.

At 3:27 of the 3rd, Daniel Sedin makes it 3-2. Two minutes and 5 seconds later, Henrik Sedin ties the game. From there the score remains deadlocked until there's just 2 minutes and 4 seconds left, and Henrik sets up Daniel for the game-winner. With 38 seconds left in the game, Alex Burrows seals the deal with an empty-netter. As the final seconds tick down, Andrew Raycroft is seen saluting the fans and dancing in celebration.

I thought this was rock bottom. I thought it couldn't possibly get worse then this. And despite the fact that this was the last game Toskala, Blake, Stajan, Hagman, Mayers, and White would be seen in Maple Leafs uniforms, I was still wrong. There would be one more yet to come that would bring us to the lowest point of all.
The first game after the Great January 31st Overhaul, with Giguere and Phaneuf, was a huge success. A 3-0 shut-out over the New Jersey Devils had sparked fresh enthusiasm and declarations that a new era of respectability was on its way. The next game after the big trades, a return meeting against the Devils just 3 days later, was depressingly stark in the way it revealed how little had actually changed. Just when you started believing...

Back to their usual form, the Leafs gave up the first goal of the game in the 1st period, an even-strength marker to Dainius Zubrus. The 2nd period however, belonged to the Leafs. Kaberle on the powerplay has the equalizer at 3:39, and then at 10:23 the powerplay strikes again, this time it's Stempniak. to give the Leafs the lead. At 16:09, and after 38 games, Rickard Wallin scores his first goal as a Maple Leaf, giving the Leafs a 3-1 lead and sending them into the second intermission with a 2-goal cushion.

The game stays that way with the Leafs in control and relaxed and the game well in hand until, with just 3 minutes and 4 seconds to go, McAmmond strikes for New Jersey to bring them within one. Suddenly Leaf fans are a little anxious, and Leaf players look nervous and grip their sticks like they're hanging from the edge of a cliff. A penalty to Ponikarovsky increases the New Jersey momentum, and with a sixth attacker joining the play, the Devils tie the score, Zajac in dramatic fashion, with just 44 seconds left on the clock.

Then the unthinkable.

It took just 25 seconds. The New Jersey crowd rocked and roared and the Leafs seemed utterly helpless. Those Leaf fans that witnessed it felt that helplessness. Pondolfo scores for the Devils with just 19 seconds left and New Jersey takes a 4-3 lead. A two-goal lead for the Blue and White evaporating in under 3 minutes and not even a consolation point for overtime. Nothing. Just another loss. Our new-look Leafs were all too familiar.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After the game we learned the terrible news that Brendan Burke had passed away at the young age of 21.

Time stopped. Hockey stopped. The NHL standings lost all relevance. All the anger, the frustration, the disappointment of losing, the utter despair that should have followed such an astonishing defeat, all of it stopped. Suddenly meaningless and swept aside, replaced by immeasurable grief and sorrow.

The real world. Human life. So much more important then a spectator sport. How can we express our sadness and discuss death and then go back to talking about a game? It's so tragic. And it has nothing to do with hockey. Personal lives are not part of the spectacle.

And yet I believe it's fair to say that hockey fans were deeply moved. An outpouring of sympathy came from every corner of the hockey universe, Leafs Nation included. How could I write a post about our toughest losses without mentioning Brendan Burke? And how could I mention Brendan Burke in a post and not let it take over the post? How can I not write about what a remarkable human being he seemed to be and how utterly sad it is...? How can I write about how it hurts to lose hockey games when someone else has lost someone they love? Why would I do this?

Because I remember, and I can't forget. Because I respect Brian Burke for what he's done in his career and for what he's doing now with my beloved Blue and White. He is the figurehead of a franchise and a fanbase that sometimes feels like my family. There's no comparing, of course, to real-life relationships, but I can't deny the emotional engagement either. I adore the collective spirit; the passion that unites us all, in anguish and in triumph. This is my team. Win or lose.

It's just a game after all, but for many of us, it means more. The most wonderful aspect of Leaf Nation is the sense of camaraderie and how deeply we care.

I remember Brendan Burke. Same as I remember Teeder Kennedy. And Peter Zezel. With sorrow, but also joy. Heroes are heroes. We honour them by remembering them and then by moving forward and opening our hearts.

And when we're ready, new heroes will emerge.

I remember these losses, amongst others, as I remember last place overall in the Eastern Conference. It only makes me want to win even more. Have faith. And let the season begin...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Oh My God Look How Much Better We Are

Whether we win or lose our first game of the regular season, I promise you one thing; we will not go 0-7-1 in our first 8 this year. We are much better then that, and much better then the roster that started things off so dreadfully poor last year, essentially destroying the season before it had a chance to begin. A simple comparison of line-ups, from last year's season-opener against the Canadians, to the starting-roster of our last pre-season game, shows a marked improvement in skill and potential.

Only seven players from that line-up on October 1st, 2009 also appeared in our closing pre-season game Oct. 2nd, 2010, the final tune-up before the big show with what is expected to be the opening-night roster. Those seven surviving players are:

Francois Beauchemin
Mikhail Grabovski
Tomas Kaberle
Mike Komisarek
Colton Orr
Luke Schenn
Jonas Gustavsson

Beauchemin and Komisarek should be settled and more confident to start this season. Schenn is bigger and stronger, more mature, and meaner. Kaberle is entering a contract year and may have something to prove. Grabbo cut his hair but still looks as cocky and confident as ever. Gustavsson is a year older and wiser and should be less distracted. And Colton Orr is Colton Orr.

Now let's look at players that were in our line-up on opening night last season who won't be this time around:

Jason Blake - now in Anaheim
Garnet Exelby - flunked his try-out with the Rangers
Niklas Hagman - Calgary
John Mitchell - press box
Alexei Ponikarovsky - signed with L.A. Kings
Wayne Primeau - available to anyone
Jay Rosehill - Marlies
Matt Stajan - Calgary
Viktor Stalberg - Chicago
Lee Stempniak - Phoenix
Rickard Wallin - Who knows, who cares.
Ian White - Calgary
Vesa Toskala - never seen or heard from again, hopefully

Now look at what we've replaced those 13 players with from our last pre-season tilt:

Colby Armstrong
Tyler Bozak
Tim "Legend" Brent
Mike Brown
Carl Gunnarsson
Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin
Clarke MacArthur
Dion Phaneuf
Fredrik Sjostrom
Kris Versteeg
Mike Zigomanis
J.S. Giguere

This is an entirely positive overhaul. First let's compare the two defenders:

Phaneuf and Gunnarsson replace XLB and White. I like Ian White, but this is not a fair contest.

Next, the skill-forwards: Bozak, Kessel, Versteeg, Kulemin vs. Stajan, Blake, Poni, and Hagman. Again, this is so lopsided it makes my stomach hurt. Kulemin was a healthy scratch last year on opening night, and 4 times in the first 8 games. This year, he comes to camp much improved and ready to be an important contributor that shores up a dangerous looking offence.

Now let's look at three of our bottom-six newcomers: Armstrong, Brown, and MacArthur the assist ninja, vs. Primeau, Rosehill, and Stempniak the useless ninja. Again, it's no-contest. The guys we've added to the line-up are serious upgrades over last year's starters.

And then, the grunts of the team: Brent, Sjostrom, Zigomanis, vs. Mitchell, Wallin, and Stalberg. I think the Legend of Brent has superseded Mitchell in terms of fan-confidence and he deserves a shot. Couldn't do much worse. Meanwhile, Sjostrom is a massive upgrade over Wallin both in a checking role and on the penalty kill. And lastly, and maybe a bit peculiar, is Zigomanis and Stalberg. What is interesting about this comparison is that Stalberg was last year's pre-season hero and the most exciting rookie to come out of camp, and the only one out of himself, Kadri, Hanson, and Bozak, to be given a shot with the club right from game one. This year, a different situation as Zigomanis is perhaps a surprise inclusion to start the year with the big club, while the impressive camps from Hanson and Caputi have not secured either a spot. Maybe the best thing about our new-look line-up is that, finally, the cupboard is no longer bare. Re-enforcements are hungry and ready to go.

Finally, the goaltenders: J.S. Giguere vs. Vesa Toskala

Hahahahahahahahaha... dear God, it was so horrible...

I really think if our current line-up faced off against last year's opening-night line-up, the final score would be 10-0, with Toskala pulled at the 10-minute mark of the 1st after giving up seven. This team just seems so much better in so many ways, from the top of the line-up to the bottom. My hats off to Mr. Burke, for giving us an incredible six-pack on defence, and for shoring up every other weak area in the line-up. I know, I've been drinking a lot of Kool-aid - and also NyQuil - and there's still a long way to go before we are serious Cup-contenders. But as opening night approaches, we can at least look forward to a team that is destined to compete, and not struggle, for 82 games.

And then, beyond...