Is “getting better” good enough for the Leafs right now?

The Leafs lost what ended up being a lot closer of a game than the score line suggests. 3-0 to Nashville isn’t flattering, but they did look better. Is that enough of a consolation prize at this point in the season?

It was a tale of three periods as Toronto fell to the heavily equipped Nashville predators. One period of bad play, one period of good defensive play, and one period of solid offensive play. The problem? The Maple Leafs can’t seem to put together a full 60 minute game.

The Usual First Period

Can this team start on time please? Even with the start time pushed an hour, the Leafs failed to get the memo that the first period is still required to be played.

What would a Toronto goal against be without poor defensive play, right? Jake Muzzin, the man under fire since Gardiner’s injury, committed a brutal turnover in his own zone that saw Nashville jump out to an early lead.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to defend Muzzin’s recent play, that being said the injuries that have impacted the back end cannot be ignored here. As well, it’s clear Babcock isn’t trusting his bottom pairing, as they played just over 13 minutes with the top-four defensemen playing 22:00+ minutes each.

This could be seen as a coaching issue as it relates to preparedness and motivation for the team, but what could Babcock say to his team to change this sudden drop off in early performance? The players need to start taking ownership of their poor first periods.

A Strong Second

No goals against, and extremely tight defensive play in the second completely shut down the Nashville offense. Barring a shot that hit the post from Ryan Johansen, Toronto kept the Preds to the outside in the second, restricting them to just two shots on goal in the frame.

It showed what the Leafs can do against some elite competition. Sure, Nashville are a defense-first team, but their D also contribute a lot offensively. Also, Johansen, Forsberg, Simmonds, Arvidsson, and Smith are more than capable of pelting the net consistently.

The Leafs kept Nashville to just 17 shots on goal in this game which should be celebrated as a silver lining, but that is something we should expect from a Cup contender.

Flurry in the Third… like Usual

This team always seems motivated to get back into the game in the third, but unfortunately this time it was too late. It worked against Philadelphia, blasting the doors off Brian Elliot, but Pekka Rinne put on a show in this one. Toronto out-shot Nashville in this game, but only marginally (22-17) which simply isn’t enough.

There was improved possession, better offensive pressure, and more shots on goal, but no end result. If the Leafs brought a similar effort in the first period this game could have been much different. Wear out the goalie early, then continue to raise the speed and pressure with more shots and scoring chances.

Nashville’s elite D did bail out their goalie, but it was a symbiotic relationship in this one. It was too little too late for the Leafs.

Upon Further Review…

To me, the Leafs ‘showing improvement’ and getting back on track right now is something we really shouldn’t be seeing from a team with so much talent. Of course, injuries slow things down and change the course, but good teams take those challenges and persevere – Toronto has not done that.

Maybe the transgressions of this season are akin to those of Tampa Bay’s two seasons ago when they missed the playoffs. A hard lesson to learn but one the young core needs to pay attention to nonetheless.

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The Real Losers of The Stanley Cup Final

Washington finally got their Stanley Cup after years of disappointing playoff runs, and the Vegas Golden Knights defied the odds of what an inaugural expansion team should have been able to do. It’s weird to say but there wasn’t really a loser when it came to the NHL Stanley Cup finals, but that’s simply not okay in my eyes… so I did some digging.

I present to you: the Montreal Canadians and Florida Panthers – Losers of the 2017/18 Stanley Cup Finals!

Montreal Canadiens

Third last in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic division with only 71 points amassed, Montreal were out of the playoffs for some time this season. But, when we look at the roster of the Washington Capitals there are some familiar faces for Habs fans.

Devante Smith-Pelly – The former Canadien winger is currently catching the run off booze out of the Stanley Cup from Ovechkin’s bender. Besides that, Smith-Pelly was cast in the right spot for Washington as a depth winger who can bring physical play and speed with the addition of some secondary scoring. In the regular season DSP managed 38 points, more than he had in two seasons combined in Montreal.

While having just a brief stint in MTL, Smith-Pelly was heralded a little too highly upon arriving. He was a promising prospect coming from the well respected draft and development system of Anaheim. It may have been too much too fast for DSP who has already played in seven NHL season at just 26 years of age, but knowing that he is a low ceiling depth forward rather than a high potential prospect has seemed to unlock his abilities for Washington.

In the playoffs Smith-Pelly chipped in 8 points with 7 of them being goals. Depth scoring and even playoff depth scoring (when they were there) is something Montreal has needed for some time, and missed out on by cutting ties with Smith-Pelly.

Lars Eller – A true Montreal Canadien to the core and veteran of six NHL seasons with the Canadiens, Lars Eller has just completed his career best season – away from the Habs. Lars Eller, Washington’s third (sometimes fourth) line centre has been a bit of a jack of all trades for his team. In the playoffs he was able to jump up in the line up when Nicklas Backstrom was out for four games against Tampa Bay. Eller was able to bring his physical, agitating game up to Washington’s second line, but also mixed in his offensive prowess too.

Eller had 38 points to his name this regular season, 18 goals and 20 assists and in the playoffs he added 18 points in 24 games. He is very effective in front of the net and brings more skill and physicality to the Washington line up in a depth role. With Devante Smith-Pelly below him in the line up and Tom Wilson above, Eller acted as a balancing out factor in the physical/skill hybrid style of play Washington thrived on this season and post season.

Eller wasn’t miscast in Montreal, and didn’t underperform really either. The Habs were not as offensively talented as the Capitals were this season and for years passed, but his presence in the centre ice position is desperately needed on the Canadiens team and a versatile player like Eller could help a team looking for help in the middle of the ice.

Florida Panthers

We’re all about to witness history as the Florida Panthers are about to over-develop their players to the point of diminishing their potential abilities as the Panthers fade back into NHL obscurity. But seriously, the Florida Panthers have been on the cusp of being a great team for so long that it just doesn’t seem likely anymore that they’ll take the next step. What rubs some salt in the wound for the Panthers is seeing two of their players from the season prior excelling and firing the Vegas Golden Knights to unbelievable success.

Jonathan Marchessault – Entering the league officially with Columbus in 2012-13 Marchessault would have to wait until 2016-17 to show what he could really be in this league with the Florida Panthers. He would go on to score 51 points in his first season with Florida. He was believed to be a found-money type of player that returned on a low investment and could help fill out and carry the Panther’s young core forward into the playoffs and further. They wouldn’t make the playoffs that season but everyone believed he would certainly be safe from the expansion draft, showing that he is a bit of a maestro offensively. Apparently we were all wrong, and Vegas made a no brainer and scooped up the surprisingly unprotected player.

Marchessault would continue his offensive outburst in Vegas, netting 75 points in the regular season. He didn’t slow down in the playoffs either, putting up more than a point a game in the post season with 21 points in 20 games. He was brought in with low expectations, as were all of the Knights players, and exceeded the likely predictions around him for the season. Florida ended up missing the playoffs without him, and he would have registered tied for second in team scoring with Vincent Trocheck, behind only Aleksander Barkov.

Reilly Smith – Vegas would pick up the $25 million dollar man from Florida before their inaugural season began in June 2017 for just a fourth round pick in the 2018 draft. A puzzling move as he was traded just one season after Florida signed him to a 5 year $5 million dollar a year contract. He did decline in production in his final year with Florida, only putting up 37 points, however his previous three seasons saw him collect 51, 40, and 50 points respectively.

Florida gave up on him too early, and what was the Panther’s loss was the Golden Knights gain. Smith would only play in 67 games this season but, you guessed it, he set a new career high in points with 60 – 22 goals and 38 assists. His playoff success mirrored that of his regular season, as he was over a point a game in the post season with 22 points in 20 games played.

He would have happily been sitting 5th in team scoring for Florida with his 60 points, and the Panthers really did lack scoring depth this season. Sitting at just +2 goal differential, Florida was approximately 43 goals off of their division mate and playoff race opponent Toronto Maple Leafs, and trailed them by 9 points at season end.

 

There always needs to be a loser, and if we justify losers by the players listed above who broke out for their respective NHL finals teams, Montreal and Florida fit the role perfectly. Both are disappointing in different manners for their fanbases, and both teamsvneeded what the players lost brought to their new teams a season ago.

For Montreal, their shining star Carey Price also takes a hit when comparing teams with Washington. Braeden Holtby the often second ranked Canadian goalkeeper behind Price, now has a Stanley Cup to his name and impressed in his playoff run. He can easily be justified over Price now with his new hardware in hand.

And for Florida (and outside of their players who lit it up for Vegas) it seems like just desserts for the team that so unceremoniously fired their likeable and successful head coach. Gerard Gallant, a shoe-in guarantee for the Jack Adams coach of the year trophy, deserves this success his new team enjoyed more than anyone. He was let go on the road against Carolina, literally on the curb outside of the team bus post game, players looking on from the bus. Now, he can boast the most successful expansion team in sports, while the Panthers achieved nothing this season.

For both Montreal and Florida, Washington and Vegas taking their scraps and incorporating them into elite, scoring teams should act as a wake up call. Rather than cut bait too soon, evaluate and cast your players right to maximize their potential. As mentioned at the top, it’s hard to call Vegas a loser in this Stanley Cup final. Roster moves from Montreal and Florida, however have made for nice losers for the 2017-18 finals.

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

The series is set! The Vegas Golden Knights were eagerly awaiting their next opponent, and after an impressive shutout by Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals are headed to Vegas. It’s quite the story; Alex Ovechkin is finally making his first career appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, in what could be his first and only shot at winning the long desired Cup. Only one thing stands in his way. An expansion team in their inaugural season. The funny thing is that 99% of the time this would be some insane underdog story of a team that somehow scraped together enough wins to make the finals, to face off against the Great 8 in a David Vs. Goliath showdown. But the reality is Vegas has absolutely crushed their way to the finals, proving the regular season was no fluke. Is Vegas even an underdog anymore? I’m not sure. I don’t remember the last time I watched a team cruise to the finals as easily as the Golden Knights. It’s mind boggling.

The big question of the series is, have the Capitals finally put the previous decade of disappointment in the past? It seems like it. Kuznetsov is playing lights out, leading the scoring race with 24 points, with Ovechkin right behind with 22 points. They will give Vegas a monumental challenge. Can Vegas smother the Capitals offense the same way they did the Jets? We’re going to find out!

I want to give Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson some love because I don’t think they have gotten enough. Those three have formed one of the best top lines in the entire NHL. They simply dominate every line they match up against. They are currently a combined +24 in the playoffs and lead by Marchessault’s 18 points. Nobody has had an answer for this trio all year.

Who might be up to the task of shutting them down? If anyone has a shot, it’s John Carlson who has continued his career year into the playoffs, tied for 3rd in team points with Nick Backstrom. He’s going to have to come up big and continue playing the way he has.

Finally it goes without saying, it’s time for Alex Ovechkin to prove he can be clutch on the biggest stage in the NHL. It’s his team and he knows it. He’s not getting younger and this could legitimately be the only time he plays in the finals. I fully expect beast mode out of him.

So whether you are cheering for the Golden Knights to continue their Cinderella story and make history, or one of the greatest goal scorers of all time to finally get his championship – this is a series of destiny either way you look at it.

Dear Leafs fans: Breathe

That’s all you need to do.

Before the final buzzer had gone, Jake Gardiner had been chastised, (I admittedly also wrote a few pointed words), and for all intents and purposes been banished from Leaf land.

Willy Nylander is bait for a top pair defenseman, Auston Matthews is an ineffective playoff performer, Freddy Andersen was no longer the tender receiving a chorus of ‘Freddy’s’ just one game earlier.

The sweat had not yet dried on their equipment, and Coach Babcock, also once praised, had ruined his relationship with the Leafs saviour and he was being shipped back to Arizona where he came from.

Does this sound familiar? Ah, yes of course. It’s the signal that Spring has arrived in Toronto, and befitting with the late round of winter we’ve had, has kept up the routine.

The Toronto media and fan-base has no off-season when it comes to hockey. Every move, every meal, is critiqued, and most wear it as a badge of honour. “The media here is so crazy, right? We’re so hard and tough on players I hope they’re ready for it!” Do any of these people realize that hey, it’s not a great thing to have that reputation? It’s one thing for outsiders to say ‘yikes it’s there’, but for the people asking the questions in the locker room to be doing it it’s a little too… what’s the word…uncouth? I’ll go with that.

This has been said too many times for me to feel good about repeating it, but pain is coming. I’d say it’s here and has been for over a year. But that’s what we were to expect, no? Speedbumps? Yes, plenty of them.

Leafs fans would like results similar to what the Blackhawks and Penguins had/have; sustained success and perennial playoff contenders. I think it’s fair to say every fan base would like to support a team that wins. But do we realize HOW bad the Penguins and Blackhawks were before actually reaching the pinnacle?

The Penguins were bad enough to get one 1st overall pick for M.A. Fleury, a 2nd overall for Malkin, (could have been Ovechkin), and we all know their captain. Yes, won through a lottery but it still counts. Pittsburgh barely had a building.

Chicago, they were an original six team who couldn’t draw a crowd and didn’t have their games on television. Need I say more?

What have Leaf fans had to endure? Leaving out the whole ‘since 67’ thing and focusing on our team we have right now, not much. Even in the past years, the Buds have made multiple playoff runs with a ton of excitement.

Nazem Kadri, drafted 2009, and is now just becoming the player he was drafted to be.

Morgan Rielly, drafted 2012, was actually in (borderline) Norris conversation for the first time.

Willy Nylander, drafted 2014, played first two full NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 6th in Calder voting

Mitch Marner, drafted 2015, two NHL seasons reaching 60+ points in each. 5th in Calder Voting

Auston Matthews, drafted 2016, 74 goals in first two seasons, 60+ points in each. Won Calder trophy.

Looks pretty good to me. I’d take that over any other team in the NHL.

Do the Leafs have their issues? Absolutely. But what people fail to realize is that even the Champions at the end of the season have their issues. No team is perfect, and that’s why you hear, every year ‘they worked hard and things went their way’.

I use stats only to show you who these players that we have are, and what they’re capable of. We’ve all watched them all season, and how happy they’ve made all the fans. Don’t turn on them when they’re at their lowest.

Relationships in life are special things. They’re supportive, exciting, loving, and they work together. Good ones have those feelings go both ways, unconditionally. How sweet would it be for the team and fans be together in looking out at the rest of the NHL and, together, saying ‘we told you so’ while parading down Bay? (Yes I’ve planned it).

Together.

What unreasonable fans, and mostly the media in Toronto, are at risk of, is becoming part of the enemy. More of a hindrance than help. Why would a collection of humans who feel the need to shield themselves from their own fan-base also want to take a puck to the face for them? Instead of pushing the team under the bus at every corner, be a help. Be a supportive partner. There’s a reason why Patrick Marleau is the first high-profile free agent to come to Toronto, and he did it at the end of his career.

Don’t become part of the enemy. Do not ruin a good thing.

Think about how Phil feels, and don’t be the person in Toronto he’s thinking about when he shoves his 2 rings in their face. We’re better than that.

Welp, That Sucked.

It’s game 7, and the Leafs are facing the Boston Bruins. The Leafs are up 4-3 heading into the third period. Surely these flashbacks I’m getting are just paranoia right? No, they aren’t, because Boston just scored 4 straight goals in the third period to win the series. Marchand cements it with the empty netter. Kill me.

There’s a lot of blame to throw around here, and I will get that out of the way now so I can attempt to end this on a positive note. Okay here is the obvious one – Jake Gardiner what the hell was that? That was the worst game he played the entire season. Bad decision after bad decision, no physicality, no desperation. That was garbage. I’ll give him credit for owning it after the game, but it doesn’t take away from that performance. I really expected better. As for the rest of the defense, they were all pretty MEH. The only pair that I thought actually looked good was the Dermott and Polak pair. They were fairly steady and it’s a real shame Dermott only got 11 minutes of ice time.

Matthews had a strong start with a couple scoring chances early, and I really thought this could be his breakout game, but he went MIA in the second and third period. For someone who went PPG in the regular season and paced for over 40 goals, he was a big disappointment. He wasn’t the worst by any stretch, but you need your big guns to step up and he got completely shut down.

I don’t understand how a line with Bozak and JVR, who should be in their prime, going against the softest competition, can be completely invisible. JVR 0 points, 0 shots, -3. Bozak 0 points, 1 shot, -2. It’s actually a little sad as it could be both their last games as a Leaf.

Who DID come to play? Mitch Marner, Patrick Marleau, William Nylander, and Kasperi Kapanen (what a goal!). All these guys played their heart out and it showed. I have become more and more impressed by Marner every game. This guy is a true franchise talent, and next to Matthews, should be the Leafs most important player in the coming years.

So the season is over and we are all still sour about the loss. Good news is that there are good things to come for this team. One lost series can’t take away the fact that this roster just broke franchise records! The core of the team can’t even grow a playoff beard yet. Don’t overreact and call for drastic changes. A couple upgrades would be nice (looking at you Tavares..) but at the end of the day, this is still a very promising young team. The future looks good Leaf fans.

 

The Best Two Words In Sports: Game Seven

The time for chills and goosebumps is upon us as Toronto and Boston are headed for a game seven!

With many people doubting them (me included), the Toronto Maple Leafs have clawed back from 0-2 and 1-3 to tie up their opening round series with the Boston Bruins.

What was sold as the odds on favourite for most intense series was looking pretty grim, pretty early for the Leafs. Toronto looked laughable in the first two games; unable to keep up with Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak, and throughly unorganized on the ice in general. The Kadri suspension in Game 1 was another situation the Leafs would have to deal with, as their shut down centre made a selfish decision to board a defenceless player.

Now level at three games a piece Toronto has a chance to exorcise some demons, and route out the ghosts of a previous game seven in Boston. And I’m not going to say anything else about that unspeakable night.

Where has Toronto turned it around? And how can they compete with these once believed invincible Bruins? Well, I suppose they trust in Mike Babcock. Hand up, I called him Peter Horachek not long ago and thats on me. But, when adversity struck, Babcock seemed to figure out a new look line up that can handle the physicality of Boston.

Hyman – Matthews – Brown
Marleau – Plekanec – Marner
JVR – Bozak – Nylander
Johnsson – Kadri – Kapanen

…or something like this.

Toronto has spread it out and used their two most physical centres, Kadri and Plekanec and paired them with fast wingers to bring a massive forecheck to the Boston end. The use of both centres in a flowing manner also has limited the ability to line match too easily for Boston, as they want Bergeron’s line matching up with Matthews. To ease the pressure on Toronto’s big gun, Babcock gave him a clone of Hyman, Connor Brown, to match Nylanders speed with an added edge in physical board play on his right side.

Hats off to Babcock because it’s working. Something he hasn’t solved yet however, is the face off dominance by Bergeron, by that is a different story.

The player who has undoubtedly been Toronto’s rock, MVP, and saving grace is Frederik Andersen. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nearly 40+saves every night, Andersen looks completely calm and in control when he plays. After game six he has now made two massive paddle saves reaching behind him and seemingly has broken the Bruins will to win single handedly.

What goes along with his physical performance is the mental dominance he has shown over Boston. In the first period he made 17 saves, followed by 8 in the second. Boston was throwing everything at the net but couldn’t solve the Andersen enigma in net, and it showed. Sunken heads and puzzled faces populated the Boston bench, they looked defeated. Andersen is showing all of the Toronto sports media that he in fact, isn’t tired after seeing a league high 2029 shots in the regular season.

Toronto isn’t going to get the calls from the refs, they’re not going to win a lot of the physical battles, they aren’t going to dominate the face off dot, but for some reason I’m hopeful. It’s a full 360 on where I was after game 1 and game 2, but they’ve showed me a willingness to win at any cost that I can’t not believe in.

Go Leafs Go.

Leafs Have a Chance to Even Up Series

Toronto and Boston get back to the grind Thursday night, and it is a critical one. I have thought since the beginning that both teams would win their first 2 games at home, so now it’s up to the Leafs to prove me right, and I really hope they do. The Leafs have a fantastic home record this season and they need to take advantage of it, because I don’t see them coming back from a 3-1 deficit heading back to Boston.

The last game has shown us that they still have some fire left in them. Babcock made a ballsy call in having Plekanec shadowing Bergeron on the second line, and to my surprise he not only performed well, but actually completely shut him out of the game and left the Bergeron line at a combined -7 for the night. Wow! Well played Babcock. Matthews had a gorgeous snipe and old man Marleau did was he does…score goals. So it’s time to do it again. I imagine they go back to what has worked and have Plekanec, Marleau and Marner facing off against Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak again. Just keep doing what you did last game please.

JVR and Bozak have been quiet lately and it would be a great time to catch that fire again and provide some secondary scoring. The leafs live and die on spread out scoring, so they must take advantage. They are getting the easiest line match ups and theoretically should be winning that battle.

Rielly it’s nice to see you again! Amazing performance. I’d like to see Babcock really lean on him heavily. Forget about game 1 and 2. Build off of game 3. We all know he has it in him, as he did it all season. Hainsey is really starting to show his age lately (not to mention completely over worked in the regular season) so I’m starting to wonder how long it takes until he loses his spot on the top pair? In reality he probably won’t but it’s times like this I REALLY wish the leafs had won the Ryan McDonagh sweepstakes.

Something to look forward to – Kadri is only suspended one more game, meaning he is guaranteed at least one game back this series. If they can muster out a win on Thursday, they can ice their full lineup when they go back to Boston. And that brings me to my final question. Let’s say Plekanec is able to shut down Bergeron and company again? Do you still put Kadri back on the second line and screw with what has worked? Kadri on the fourth? Move him to wing? I’ll leave that one up to the coach.

Oh one more thing…Komarov you were a good soldier, but maybe take the rest of the playoffs off. I hate to say it but you just aren’t cutting it anymore and the stats back it up. Leave Johnsson in. He’s younger, faster, and MUCH more dynamic. Please!