A 2-2 week is a 2-2 week however you slice it. That being said, there were plenty of positives for the Leafs (12-8-2) to take away from a pair of 7-1 wins over Washington and Tampa Bay, two of the league’s eight 100+ point teams from last season, counter-balanced by a 4-1 loss in Nashville and a 3-2 fatigue-fuelled defeat at the hands of Carolina.
Strength Down the Middle
It seemed unthinkable as recently as this past off-season, but is the centre position an actual area of strength for these Leafs? Tyler Bozak is finally looking confident in his third NHL season and the results are getting there as well. A two-goal, one-assist game against Tampa on Tuesday gave the 25-year old 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) through 20 games, leaving him well on pace to surpass last season’s 32-point output. Of course, much of his improvement can be credited to the exceptional play of oft-linemates Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, but their success has allowed Bozak to find his own game and keep things simple rather than force matters in trying to be an offensive star. Tim “As Long As He’s Healthy” Connolly also stood out on Tuesday, recording a goal and two helpers. Connolly has actually been a point-per-game player over 10 games in the line-up and will continue to bolster things down the middle so long as he can stay on the ice. Perhaps the biggest difference from a year ago is the depth of centremen further down the roster, where Robert Steckel, Matthew Lombardi and Philippe Dupuis have represented a night-and-day improvement over Tim Brent, John Mitchell, Mike Zigomanis and whoever else patrolled the middle on the back two lines last season. In fact, you could argue that Mikhail Grabovski is the only pivot on the team who is underperforming, and I still like his chances of finding his game once he returns from injury. Oh yeah, and there’s still Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri on the rise.
A Leader Emerges
There’s a bona fide leader in theToronto locker room who happens to hone his craft on the blue line. It isn’t the captain, Dion Phaneuf (although this is pretty fantastic), nor is it supposed leader-in-waiting Luke Schenn. It’s actually been John-Michael Liles, who has quietly established himself as a reliable puck handler who is responsible in his own end and is turning into an excellent free agent pick-up. Off the ice, the 30-year old seems to have quickly grown comfortable with being a vocal presence and has kept things positive by acknowledging standout performances by younger Leafs and even offering jokes / words of praise / birthday wishes to teammates via Twitter. Okay, so when you consider a leader in the great tradition of guys like Beliveau, Messier and Yzerman, it’s fairly ridiculous to commend a guy for sending a teammate a birthday tweet, but it all speaks to establishing a repoire and building team chemistry. And right now, Liles is getting it done.
How About Those Special Teams?
It’s in the numbers – if there are an uneven number of players on the ice during a Leafs game, odds are someone is about to score. The club still ‘reigns’ as one of the league’s bottom-feeders when it comes to killing off penalties (although they are out of the basement and all the way up to… 27th), but now they seem to be developing a knack for finding the back of the net with the man advantage. Between the 7-1 drubbings of the Caps and Lightning, Toronto scored five goals on the power play, helping them jump up to third in the league in PP efficiency (22.61905%, behind just Colorado and Vancouver). Most encouragingly, the team’s five-goal PP flurry included four different scorers and three different lines. They have now scored on eight of their previous 15 power play opportunities.
Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons often promotes what he calls the “Ewing Theory”, which suggests the possibility of a team using the loss of a star player to come together and play even stronger as a unit despite (or maybe because of) the loss (the Leafs demonstrated it – to some extent – during their 2004 playoff victory over Ottawa minus Mats Sundin). I don’t think the Ewing Theory applies to minor league teams who lose stars due to call-ups, but you could certainly argue such after this past weekend’s efforts by the Toronto Marlies. After losing Colborne, Joey Crabb and, later, Korbinian Holzer to the big club, the Marlies responded with a 3-0 weekend in which they got a combined nine goals from seven different players (Jerry D’Amigo, Greg Scott, Marcel Mueller, Mike Zigomanis, Josh Engel, Simon Gysbers and Holzer) and were bolstered by Mark Owuya, who boasts a sparkling 3-1-1 record, 1.51 GAA and .944 save percentage through six starts this season.
What’s Coming Up
@ Dallas (Friday); @ Anaheim (Sunday); vs. Boston (Wednesday)
The Leafs head into what is sort of a bizarro world weekend. Not only do they visit Dallas and Anaheim for the first time in years and lack a Saturday night game, but they find themselves pitted against role-flipping teams, with Dallas playing the part of the Western Conference power recently atop the NHL standings and Anaheim playing the bottom-feeder part, complete with a 6-11-4 record. Then comes what Leafs fans are surely ruing: an all-Boston week in which the Bruins come to town on Wednesday and then host the Buds next Saturday.
About the Author
Written by Ben Fisher