The week could have gone a whole lot worse for the Leafs (5-2-1), who escaped much of a tough road stretch and some key injuries with a 2-2 mark and a still-impressive over-all record as they get some of their charges back. It certainly helped to cap off the home stand with a shootout victory over the Jets, making losses to Boston and Philadelphia more tolerable. Also serving as cause for celebration in Leafs land was Mikhail Grabovski getting some measure of revenge against his former club by tallying the OT winner against the Habs in Montreal on Saturday. That being said, they could use a nice, decisive win, given that they’ve lost more games by multi-goal differentials (2) than they’ve won (1) and haven’t won in regulation since October 15.
Was Tim Connolly’s shoulder injury, in fact, a blessing in disguise? Ridiculous as it seems to find positives in a season-opening injury to your big off-season pick-up, it has presented a nice set of debuting circumstances for the centre heading into tonight’s contest with the New York Rangers. Connolly now arrives in the line-up on the road to a top six forward corps that is already operating smoothly and may even get to join a top line that has been absolutely dominant, thereby easing pressure on him to contribute immediately. As of now, forget about how he gels with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul – it’s just good to see the 30-year old on the ice and healthy.
Goaltending in Flux
My biggest concern out of the Leafs’ early-season goaltending situation hasn’t been the injury woes of James Reimer (although that’s still assuming he’s out with a neck injury – a concussion is a whole other story). However, it’s the play of Jonas Gustavsson in Reimer’s absence that remains very much in question. As Damien Cox recently said, Gustavsson is officially out of excuses and this is where he has to start proving his worth. And no, a 1-2 record with an .857 save percentage and 4.88 GAA won’t do it. It’s also worth noting that he was outplayed by Ben Scrivens during the pre-season but was given another shot at back-up duties a) to offer Reimer support from someone who at least has a bit of NHL experience under their belt and b) to give Gustavsson a chance to prove that 2010-11 was simply an off year. It’s not time to cut the bait with the Monster, but he’ll have to change course in a hurry with Scrivens making a push and management seeking a whole lot more dependability out of that back-up spot.
There is a Leaf atop the NHL scoring race and a two Marlies sitting tied for first in the AHL race. Cue the frenzy in Leafs Nation. No, I don’t expect to see Kessel raising the Maurice Richard or Hart Trophy at season’s end, nor do I see Joe Colborne nor – really? – Joey Crabb carrying their early momentum to an AHL scoring title in April (remember, the AHL folks don’t necessarily want the scoring title, as it would pretty much mean a full season in the minors). However, there is plenty to be gleaned from Colborne’s hot start that has seen him score seven and assist on eight more for 15 points through seven games. If such a thing as a five-tool player existed in hockey, the Providence alum would be growing into one. He has displayed good hands, great wheels, solid play-making vision, scoring instincts and on a hybrid scoring/grinder line with Crabb and Jerry D’Amigo, has shown a willingness to play physical (as you should when you stand 6’5” and weigh 213 pounds). For now, the Leafs seem to be pretty set down the middle (never thought I’d hear myself say that last year) and Nazem Kadri should be the first call if a spot opens up, but Colborne is becoming awfully hard to ignore.
Dion and the Rest
Despite getting tremendous production from the top, that same level of play simply hasn’t been matched throughout the corps and raises issues about balance and depth. This previous line could refer to the forward unit of Kessel, Lupul and a bunch of guys who aren’t performing up to standard, but it also applies to a defensive corps in which Dion Phaneuf is playing at an elite level without much help. Remove Phaneuf’s nine points (two goals, seven assists) and +7 rating and the blue line has 14 assists spread among six rearguards (40 total games) and a -5 rating. Carl Gunnarsson hasn’t been able to capitalize on playing alongside Phaneuf yet, John-Michael Liles has probably been the team’s second-best defender but has been dragged down by the poor play of partner Luke Schenn, Jake Gardiner still looks lost at times but seems to be coming around, Mike Komisarek continues to be a shell of his former self and Cody Franson can’t seem to shake press box duty.
What’s Coming Up
@ New York Rangers (Thursday); vs. Pittsburgh (Saturday); @ Ottawa (Sunday)
Interesting week with a trio of tough-but-winnable games. The Leafs get to see what they missed out on tonight as they visit Brad Richards and the New York Rangers and face another team that could be jostling for one of the precious few spots at the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It will also be interesting to see how Connolly is used and how regularly. Saturday brings the Pens and a healthy Evgeni Malkin to town, not that they need him (or Sidney Crosby, for that matter) given their Atlantic-leading 7-2-2 start. Sunday will see the Buds endure their first back-to-back set of the season as they hightail it to Ottawa for a clash with the Sens.
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Written by Ben Fisher