They May Have Lost The Battle, But …

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    … they didn’t give up the fight.

    Maple Leafs‘ fans should be very pleased with the effort displayed in last night’s 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.   Although another loss is disappointing on the surface, there is much to feel good about in regard to the team’s play following a week’s break.  It is not often that one can look at a loss as a game to instill confidence; however, last night’s game should serve to do exactly that, among both players and fans alike.

    There were several signs that the team is beginning to come around and play the type of game that both GM Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson have aspired to witness:

    • The Maple Leafs dominated puck possession for the majority of the game; especially during the third period.  For the first time since perhaps games one and three versus Montreal and Ottawa, the players appeared to believe they could win the game down to the final minute.
    • The team responded well to falling behind early, which was a major problem through the first seven games.
    • Along those lines, when the penalty kill would falter previously, the team would lose heart.  Not so on Saturday night.
    • The players were aggressive on the forecheck, generating a number of chances; replicating this type of effort will be crucial to future success.
    • The defenders did a much better job of forcing turnovers, knocking pucks off sticks, and winning battles in the corners, elements which were sorely lacking in the first seven games.
    • The goaltending clearly inspired team confidence for a change, rather than hindering it.  Joey MacDonald made several outstanding saves to keep the team in the game while the score was 2-0, and to give his team a chance to tie the game while the score was 2-1.
    • Luke Schenn appeared to get the message that was sent when he was bumped to the #7 spot on the blueline during practice.  He was more of a presence in this game than in any other thus far, providing solid physical play (with the exception of one ill-timed penalty), being assertive with the puck, and even dropping the gloves to create some energy on the bench.

    Of course, there still are some areas of concern which need to be sorted out.

    First and foremost, the penalty kill is still a major area of weakness.   Admittedly, it is a bit difficult to judge its overall effectiveness in terms last night’s game as a standalone performance, for the two powerplay goals against do not tell the entire story.  Prior to Schenn’s penalty (which led to the first Vancouver goal), the Leafs had killed off three consecutive penalties in the period, one of which was a double-minor.  To say the least, the PK units were exhausted.   However, even on the previous successful penalty kills, the unit as a whole was prone to sitting back in a passive formation, rather than skating with and pressuring the opposition puck carriers.    For the PK to improve, a more aggressive approach is required — an approach that will hopefully begin to manifest as the players develop confidence that the goaltender will be there to bail them out.

    Secondly, the Leafs again took too many penalties earlier in the game.   Most of the penalties they took were stick fouls (White’s double-minor, Schenn’s pitchfork, Mitchell’s tripping call).   Those were all avoidable – and controllable – plays which resulted in the PK units being called upon far too often in a short period of time (okay, I grant that Mitchell’s tripping call was unfortunate as he was battling to get in position for a deflection).   But Rickard Wallin’s penalty — which led to the two goal lead — was perhaps the most avoidable of all of them.   The delay of game call was the product of the player making a panic play, which is something that has occurred far too often this season.

    Finally, net presence is an area of concern that has not been discussed much amongst the focus on the team’s other woes, but is one which nonetheless merits much more attention than it has received.   The Leafs‘ players have shown the ability to crash the crease.  But outside of Ponikarovsky, they lack a big body who can park himself in the slot and hold his ground in front of the crease.   Without a player who is able (or perhaps willing is the better word) to absorb the punishment that comes from battling for that small area of ice at the top of the crease, the opportunity to create screens, tip-in/deflection opportunities, and most importantly to cash in rebounds, remains severely compromised.  A great example of this occurred during the third period, where a rebound — with a wide open net awaiting — squirted past Rickard Wallin, who could not get untied from the stronger Vancouver defender.   It was a play on which the offense did everything right, but simply did not have a forward in front who could win the battle for that area of the ice.  Had they, overtime may have been a distinct possibility.

    Despite the concerns noted above, fans should feel encouraged by the Leafs‘ latest performance.  The question is, can they do it again when they visit the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night?   It is by no means a stretch to suggest that if the Leafs are able to replicate the effort given versus Vancouver — or an effort close to it — they will have a very good chance at securing their first win of the season against Brian Burke’s (and Ron Wilson’s, for that matter) former team.    They don’t come in a much more fitting manner than that.

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