Firstly, an interesting item of news – the Vancouver Canucks have acquired goaltender Jason LeBarbera from the LA Kings in exchange for a 7th round pick. Update: Hat-tip to Sarah, who points out that Curtis Sanford has been placed on the IR alongside Roberto Luongo, necessitating the deal for another ‘tender.
So the Maple Leafs close out an up-and-down December with a 4-3 overtime win over the lowly Atlanta Thrashers. After dropping three straight at the beginning of the month, the Leafs proceeded string together a successful six game stretch in which they picked up ten out of a possible twelve points. The Leafs then hit a Christmas time rut, losing three successively by a collective score of 16-4 . While Wilson is demanding increased consistency out of his young group, streakiness is often times the signature of a rookie-laden club. Capricious play has certainly been the hallmark of the re-building Leafs‘ season to date.
After starting off habitually slow, the Maple Leafs largely dictated the play for the remainder of the game with a strong overall effort that deserved the two points. It looked as though the Buds were going to let the game slip through their hands after a lack of capitalization (Grabovski [x2], Blake, Stempniak) on some golden opportunities to put the two points safely away. A fortunate interference call sort of saved the Leafs as on the 4-on-3 power-play Pavel Kubina beat Johan Hedberg with a cannonading blast from the point in the extra frame.
Someone has to get to the root cause of the Leafs’ inability to start well out of the gate. My guess would be that it’s a symptom of the youngsters’ lack of confidence or belief in themselves. It’s certainly not a lack of preparation, not under Wilson’s watch. The Leafs’ propensity for putting together impressive comebacks -as well as their ability to close out games (9-0-2 when leading after two) – seems to point to the possibility that the Leafs’ play corresponds with fluctuating levels of confidence. It seems that whenever something goes the Leafs’ way, the team rides the momentum of a renewed sense of confidence and self-belief (which explains the comebacks and their ability to close out games) that isn’t there from the outset of games.
Tonight was a big rebound performance for the team as a whole but more so for some individual Leafs. First and foremost, Curtis Joseph stood tall in stopping 29 shots – a couple of which were of the big-time variety – to record his first win of the year as well as his long-awaited 450th career win (congrats!). Joseph’s breakaway stop on Jim Slater to preserve the 2-2 scoreline was huge. CuJo will be rewarded with another appearance Thursday night when the Buffalo Sabres come to town. With another strong performance Thursday, Joseph will have gone a long way in re-assuring Wilson and Burke that he can provide a supportive back-up presence. If things went awry tonight as they have in the majority of his appearances to date, as Wilson recently said himself in an interview with Mike Ulmer, Leafs’ brass would have a tough decision to make, likely to either discuss the possibility of retirement with CuJo or, even less tactful, to waive/demote him. PPP, Old Yeller may just have some life left in him yet.
Tomas Kaberle, who was a -5 over the Leafs’ last three losses, was very sharp in both ends of the ice. Lee Stempniak and Nik Kulemin, two recent residents of Wilson’s doghouse, were very active and effective offensively. Stempniak played easily his best game in a Leaf uni to date. I thought Mikhail Grabovski was quite effective up front, although he should have shot on both of his breakaways as opposed to passing and attempting to deke out Hedberg. I’m not exactly sure why Grabovski has been shafted on power-play time recently by Ron Wilson.