With Kessel and Gustavsson integrating themselves into the lineup, the team seems poised to break off a big-time run to put themselves back into the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture. The team is playing very well of late and continued to build on that with an impressive 5-1 victory at home against the Detroit Red Wings on Hall of Fame night.
Update: During post-game media scrum, Wilson says Komisarek’s injury not serious.
The Maple Leafs appear to be clicking on all cylinders right now, slowly building momentum with a string of strong performances over the past two weeks. The powerplay has continued to carry the team offensively, the penalty killing has been perfect over the past 4 games, and now the Monster is beginning to run away with the starting job between the pipes.
Assorted notes and observations from tonight’s game:
– Right from the opening faceoff tonight, you could feel the Leafs wanted to make a statement game, starting out with a couple good early shifts highlighted by some good work along the boards by Niklas Hagman. Kudos to the Leafs for maintaining the intensity for the full 60 minutes tonight, marking easily their most complete game from start to finish so far this season. Excellent specialty teams play, strong forechecking, high energy and speed, topped off by spectacular goaltending all contributed to the lopsided win.
– Who would’ve thunk it, but Blake and Kessel seem to be working out quite well so far in the early going. Although Blake continues to love playing with the puck on his stick, the difference right now is that rather than settle for low percentage shots, he is using his speed effectively to create passing lanes and is looking for Phil at every opportunity. While all the attention is being focussed on Blake weaving back and forth along the boards (without losing it, which is a pleasant change), Kessel is doing what he does best and that’s lurking around and finding seams in the 5 on 5 set defense. On his stick, off his stick in a split second and there’s a an instant scoring chance. This should be an interesting duo to watch for the rest of the season.
– Not to be forgotten in that trio is John Mitchell, who played a strong game tonight, controlling play along the boards and crashing the net on a number of occasions. It seemed like a strange decision at first, but it appears Wilson made the right choice in swapping out Stajan from this line. They did try to go back to Matt on that line for a handful of shifts tonight, but without a whole lot of success. As for Stajan, he had a bizarre game in my eyes, somehow recording a point, +2 rating, and 60% faceoff percentage but still managed to lose a ton of puck battles and look invisible for much of the night.
– What can you say about Jeff Finger? Sits out a a while and comes in on Friday night to shake off the rust. The next night, he comes back with a 2 point night, solid all-around performance in 18 minutes of ice-time. Speaking of “invisible”, Jeff is exactly that but in the good sense of the word in that as a defenseman he’ll quietly do his job without standing out. No glaring mistakes, a handful of good individual plays, highlighted by a few points tonight. With Komisarek potentially out with a lower body injury, it appears Jeff is going to get another chance to re-establish his worth in Wilson’s eyes.
– Props to Phil Kessel for his first goal and multi-point night in a Leaf uniform, despite actually delivering a stronger performance during his debut against the Lightning. He already appears quite comfortable exchanging passes with Kaberle from the left faceoff circle on the powerplay, much like he did for the Bruins during his time with them. Between Kessel’s righthanded snipe from the left side and Stempniak’s good low point shot from the right, I like the way Wilson is insulating Kaberle with a pair of shooting options on either side. Opposing teams are going to have a horrific time defending that trio, and you may have noticed the Red Wings forwards cheating high towards Kessel to take away his shot during the 3rd period. That may lead to increased use of the low cross ice pass/shot from Kaberle that Gus touched upon last week.
– Grabovski looks like a very different player from the one we first saw early last season. He’s playing stronger on the puck along the boards and is positioning himself better to absorb hits in a way that he can maintain puck possession. He’s also made great strides to improve upon his major weakness from last season, the faceoff circle, winning 75% of his draws tonight. The young Belarussian chipped in an assist, now putting him on an 82 game pace of 66 points. The Leafs did well to lock up the 25 year old to a reasonable contract that will see him earn just $2.9M/season for another 2 years after this one. It’s beginning to look like they may have found themselves a player here, whom is beginning to round out nicely into a two-way threat.
– Niklas Hagman is another player who delivered a fantastic effort tonight, despite not making it onto the scoresheet. He played quite sparingly, receiving just under 13 minutes of ice-time on the night, but was certainly a stand-out performer on a number of plays. He did an excellent job with Stempniak choking off the neutral zone rush during the penalty kill and battled hard along the boards to kill off several valuable seconds. One particular play that stood out to me tonight was an end-to-end footrace with one of the Detroit blueliners during the penalty kill where Hagman pushed himself at full speed just to tap it off the defender’s stick a few more feet into the zone and proceeded to turn around and skate at full speed back the other way to break up the play a second time after the outlet pass had been made. A few seconds later you could see him coming off the ice absolutely gassed; that’s the kind of exemplary effort you need night in and night out if you want to win.
– The last player I wanted to touch on tonight was Ian White, whom many of you know is a favourite of mine. Another 2 assists tonight, +2 rating, and a number of underrated but key defensive breakups on odd-man rushes. Besides the obvious puck moving ability and uncanny ability to get shots through from the point, it’s strange to note that the diminutive defender rarely loses those 1-on-1 battles, even against larger more physical forwards. Excellent positioning, an active stick and good upper body strength go a long way in aiding White’s evolution into a very good young blueliner.
– Interesting stat: Gustavsson’s numbers now stand at a 2.60 GAA and .918 SV%