The Leafs (3-0-1) will surely take the three of four available points they earned after visits this week from the Calgary Flames (3-2 comeback win) and Colorado Avalanche (3-2 OT loss) produced a pair of flat starts and highlighted some of the club’s inherent flaws. On the positive side of the ledger, Phil Kessel (six goals, three assists) continued his scorching hot start as part of a suddenly-dynamic top line and Dion Phaneuf’s +8 leads all NHL skaters. But as the top line becomes increasingly potent, the reverse seems to be occurring for the previously reliable Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin line, who have yet to regain the chemistry that made them so dangerous last season.
Kessel Gets Assertive
Kessel’s early production shows that there is a fine line when it comes to success and failure in sports. For much of last season, the 24-year old winger (who, by the way, looks about 54 in person right now) was considered to be forcing play and not letting the game come to him on account of having to cope with lesser linemates (no, he never even suggested as much openly) and shoulder more of the load. Fast forward to this year and it’s hard to see many changes beyond the whole productive part. Sure, he’s comfortable with Joffrey Lupul and even Tyler Bozak so far, but that doesn’t make either of them world beaters. And there he is, still skating into one-on-five situations and firing practically anything he touches inside the blue line at the net. But instead of “forcing play”, he is now ‘aggressive’ and ‘opportunistic’. Kessel’s goal-scoring streak won’t last forever, nor will he be able to maintain his ridiculous 37.5% shooting percentage over the course of a whole season, but it’ll be hard to fault him any longer for trying to do too much when it’s clear that – given the right circumstances – it can work.
Aren’t These Guys Supposed to Be Young?
Much has been made of the youth of the club, with the Star’s Mark Zwolinski pointing out that Jeff Finger remains the only player in the organization to have reached his 31st birthday. While that should bode well for the future of the club, shouldn’t it also help offer an energy boost in the meantime? These Leafs seem to rise to the occasion when need be (see the second period comeback against Calgary and Kulemin’s late goal against Colorado), but take an awfully long time to get into gear. On Saturday, the Flames opened the scoring with two first period goals within 1:22 of each other. On Monday, the Avs were even more dominant early on, taking the first three shots on goal and having six others either blocked or narrowly miss the net, all the while keeping play in Toronto’s zone for nearly all of the game’s first six minutes. Credit the Leafs’ defence with a dedicated shot-blocking effort, but Toronto simply needs to emerge with more fire early on. Also worth noting is that the club has now grabbed seven of eight points in their first four games despite having yet to put together a full, 60-minute effort.
Lombardi Up to the Top?
Don’t read too much into Matthew Lombardi’s place centring Kessel and Lupul during the third period of Monday’s game. The Leafs were in need of an offensive spark (and they got it, although that came thanks to the second line) and Ron Wilson decided to provide a little jolt to get his charges going. While it does speak to the early strides that a healthy Lombardi has taken, it shouldn’t carry over in the games to come. Bozak has earned at least a temporary reprieve as the top pivot until Tim Connolly can return to action (and maybe even after that) and Lombardi doesn’t need to be rushed along into higher pressure situations just yet as he continues to get his timing back from post-concussion issues. Plus, he has found a comfortable role among the bottom six and on the penalty kill as a two-way player who has shown he can use his speed to contribute in both ends. Let’s not forget – as much as his speed would seem to offer a complimentary presence to that of Kessel, he isn’t the type of offence-first forward that should be centring a top line.
No Man Advantage
Having a suddenly potent offensive attack, boasting the league’s leading scorer, hasn’t made for any more power play success on the part of the Leafs. Aside from two goals scored while one man up against Ottawa, the team is 0-12 on the PP this season (their unit ranks 23rd league-wide over-all). Kessel and Phaneuf’s offensive efforts with the man advantage have been somewhat mitigated by the lack of a presence in front of the net, something that has been strangely lacking from Brian Burke’s supposedly truculent teams. Mike Brown has tried to mix it up in front of the opposing goaltender, but doesn’t see much power play time. Lupul may be the man for the job, but he has been fairly successful sliding into a slot position during most of his line’s time in the opponent’s zone. Perhaps the best-suited Leaf would be Robert Steckel, whose 6’6” frame could disrupt plenty of netminders and who finds himself in the odd PP situation already thanks to his faceoff skills. Am I missing something as to why he isn’t being planted in front?
What’s Coming Up
Vs. Winnipeg (Wednesday); @ Boston (Thursday); @ Montreal (Saturday); @ Philadelphia (Monday)
If the season’s first five games represent the cream puff portion of the schedule, the next four are the jaw-breaker portion. From five home dates spread out over 14 days with just one game pitting them against a 2010-11 playoff team, they move on to a four-game road stretch (the above games plus a visit to Madison Square Garden next Thursday) against a quintet of playoff teams, including the defending champs, the 2009-10 Cup finalists, a Saturday night date at the raucous Bell Centre and a battle with the winners of the Brad Richards sweepstakes. Nazem Kadri won’t be back in time for tonight’s Jets tilt, but might find himself in the line-up during the road trip.
About the Author
Written by Ben Fisher