Don’t Panic

Don’t Panic

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Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Photo Credit: Reuters

Following an unfortunate overtime loss to the New York Islanders on Monday night, the Maple Leafs came out flat against the New York Rangers last night in a 2-1 regulation loss. While some may be quick to conjure up memories of last seasons’ oft-moments of ineptitude, the truth is a 4-1-1 record offers little reason to panic. After all, that first regulation loss had to come sometime.

Does the fact the team has now lost two straight actually mean anything, in the grand scheme? At this point I would say no: consecutive losses, and flat performances, are something all teams go through at various points in the season.  Only six games into the season, it is far too early to predict whether the 2010-11 Leafs are closer to the team that looked unstoppable during the first four games of the season or the team that has had difficulty sustaining a full 60-minute effort the past two.

In both losses, the Leafs‘ competitive fire seemed to have missed the bus to the arena for much of the game. It is certainly not a case of fatigue, as the team had three days off prior to each game. One could make the case that it’s a matter of the “double-long break” between games disturbing the team’s rhythm, as Ron Wilson noted earlier in the week (glove tap to PPP).

Something common with young teams is the ease at which they can get swept up in the euphoria and attention which comes along with an unexpected winning streak, and begin to drift away from the very aspects of their work habits which led to their success in the first place — especially when facing extra days between games.  Part of it, too, may be a simple case of taking an opponent for granted: the Islanders are not regarded as a team that puts fear into the hearts of many, and the Rangers entered last night’s contest minus three of their top players. If that is indeed the case, the past two losses should serve as a wake-up call that an early run of success does not equate to sustained success in the long haul.

What is encouraging, in terms of the team’s compete level, is the way in which the players were able to summon a rush of energy toward the end of each game. In the final 5-10 minutes of both losses, the Leafs were able to raise their game to another level. Against the Islanders, the sudden onslaught resulted in a last-minute tying goal before an unfortunate penalty call led to the overtime loss. Against the Rangers last night, the Leafs again took over the game in the final few minutes, but were unable to solve Martin Biron — who, to his credit, was fantastic — before the clock ran out.

That alone should offer significant encouragement to fans worried that two consecutive losses may be the beginning of a trend. One can make the case that last year’s team would have rolled over in both games, whereas the 2010-11 Maple Leafs have shown a willingness to compete right until the very end whether they are protecting a lead (as in their victory over Pittsburgh) or attempting to erase one (as was the case in both this week’s losses). While a full 60-minute effort will be a requirement for the offensively-limited Leafs to secure victories this season, the fact that they have shown the ability to take over a game in its dying moments speaks volumes to their ability to put that sort of effort forth on a regular basis.

There are other reasons for optimism besides the Leafs’ ability to turn their compete level up a notch in crunch time. Last night, the Rangers blocked an astounding 30 shots, and the Leafs still managed to fire a reasonable 25 on Martin Biron. Although the goals may not be going in at the moment, 55 shots taken (64 if you count the 9 recorded as missed) is impressive.The penalty kill continued to impress also, along with the Leafs’ discipline, as they held the Rangers to 3 shots on only 2 powerplay opportunities. Gustavsson turned aside 30 shots, and the Leafs’ defense did a decent job keeping the Rangers away from the prime scoring areas for much of the final two periods of the game.

So where does this leave Toronto’s favorite sons? A team that won its first four games largely off skill plays and solid defensive efforts has suddenly been faced against opponents who have had a chance to scout them and thus game-plan more effectively. As opponents continue to adjust, the Leafs must find ways to counter-adjust.  On some nights speed and skill — the bread and butter of the Leafs’ scoring units — will suffice. On others, as evidenced by the results of the past two games, it will not.

Head coach Ron Wilson said as much following last night’s game:

“Other teams, they’ve been watching us, we’ve been playing well. They’re going to be prepared coming in. We’re not surprising anybody. They’re going to try and take away our speed. The Rangers did a good job of that.

[...]

To become a good team, you’ve got to know, do I have my A game? Okay tonight I don’t. A good team realizes it early and goes to plan B. Which is okay, crash the net, we got to get a couple ugly goals. And we didn’t do that.” (via)

The Leafs will have to do exactly that on Saturday night, as they travel to Philadelphia to face a physical Flyers team which excels at limiting any speed advantage an opponent may have. If the Leafs can display a willingness to crash the crease, absorb punishment in the slot, and take a few licks in an effort to earn a garbage goal or two, they will stand a very good chance of putting themselves back into the ‘win’ column against a team whose current goaltending situation is suspect at best.

Despite the two recent losses, there is not yet cause for major concern. With a full 60-minute effort, an adherence to remaining focused regardless of the opponent, and a willingness to make the necessary adjustments to their strategy on the fly, the Leafs have the tools necessary to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference. This is not last year’s team, and for that alone fans have reason to feel optimistic about not only the future — but the present as well.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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