Go figure: the Leafs’ first loss of the season – in their first game against a team not expected to contend for a play-off spot – might have been their best full-game effort yet.
Yes, the team’s lack of a single shot in the overtime frame suggested a lack of offensive finish behind Phil Kessel. And yes, Matt Moulson’s second period marker came as a result of a defensive breakdown that left the North York, ON native alone in front of the net.
But the Leafs played an aggressive, high-energy game while staying responsible on the back end. That two goals were called back (on replay, Kris Versteeg’s high sticking call looked bogus, while the refs got the Colby Armstrong no-goal call correct), Islanders goaltender Dwayne Roloson stood on his head and Brett Lebda got called for an iffy goaltender interference call in overtime were the kind of tough breaks a team faces over the course of an 82-game season.
Five games in, let’s see what we’ve learned about the boys in blue.
Newcomers making their mark
The new guys on the Leafs haven’t taken long to ingratiate themselves within the hockey bubble that is Toronto. Much has already been made of Clarke MacArthur’s five goals through five games, but he isn’t the only new Leaf standing out. Versteeg is a workhorse on the top line and has helped take some pressure off Kessel. His disallowed goal last night was a perfect example of his pesky play around the net and persistent effort in chasing down loose pucks. Meanwhile, Armstrong plays with the kind of hard-nosed style that will earn him fan favourite status in a hurry. Among the quieter contributors, Mike Brown is earning minutes as a physical presence defensively and on the forecheck, while Lebda is only one game into adjusting to life as a Leaf (although taking the costly interference call in OT isn’t a great start).
Leafs’ D gets an A
Aside from big hits, offensive rushes and the odd dramatic blocked shot, the life of a defenceman is fairly simple: if spectators notice you, odds are it’s for the wrong reasons more likely than the right ones. The Buds’ defensive unit has not offered up many highlight reel moments, but instead has provided steady, reliable, physical play in their own end which has effectively lightened the workload of goaltenders Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson. Through five games, Toronto has faced a league-low 23.0 shots against per game. It’s a positive early sign for a corps that, while impressive on paper, hardly proved much on the ice last season.
Phaneuf isn’t quite there yet
Five games in is far too early to be calling any individual player out, let alone a player getting accustomed to the ‘C’ on his chest and an enlarged role playing major defensive minutes. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dion Phaneuf has to be better than he showed last night and in the previous two games. Phaneuf is the only blue liner with a negative plus/minus rating (-1) and has looked slow and sluggish at times, particularly late in games. Playing four-on-four hockey in overtime last night, it seemed as though he couldn’t keep up with the play and spent the bulk of the frame in the neutral zone. Ironically, it was his flubbed slapshot during a third period power play that allowed for the tying goal, as Kessel picked up the errant shot and fired it past Roloson for the equalizer.
The $3.5 million Marlie
I realize I’m a little late of this, but the reaction over the Jeff Finger demotion has been perplexing. It seems that Toronto sports media is ready to laud MLSE for their willingness to absorb the unproductive defenceman’s gaudy contract ($14 million over four years, signed on Cliff Fletcher’s interim watch) and okay his move to the Marlies. It’s nice that team chairman Larry Tanenbaum is prepared to eat the two remaining years of Finger’s contract as he toils in the minors, but where has this financial commitment been all this time? Skilled players from cap relief-needy teams, like Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac from the Devils or Ryan Malone from the Lightning, may be available now, but just think of what could have been if Brian Burke was offered the extra cap flexibility in the off-season. Maybe another Blackhawks cast-off, such as now-Thrashers Dustin Byfuglien or Andrew Ladd, would be sporting the blue and white. After all, it’s not like Finger was wowing anyone with his on-ice performance last year, either.
Down on the farm
Speaking of Finger’s Marlies, “Down on the farm” will be a regular look in this space at the Leafs’ AHL affiliate and the potential future Buds who are making an impact (for better or worse). Early on this season, Nazem Kadri has received the brunt of criticism for a disappointing 1-3 start, but it is the blue line that isn’t holding up their end. Through four games (having split two each), goaltenders Jussi Rynnas and James Reimer have faced 138 shots, or just over 34 per game. The entire defensive unit is at fault, with the key culprits being Keith Aulie, Korbinian Holzer and Matt Lashoff, who have started the year a combined -8. Better news comes up front, where NHL hopefuls Luca Caputi and Brayden Irwin have led the Marlies offensively. Caputi has just a goal and an assist on the year, despite having fired a team-high 17 shots on net through four games. Irwin, meanwhile, leads the team with two goals and an assist to go along with a +2.
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Written by Ben Fisher