What a difference a two-game winning streak can make. Â After a tidy performance against the New Jersey Devils for a second consecutive victory, there is optimism aplenty amongst both Leafs fans and the players themselves. Â This young Toronto squad is regaining their confidence, and Jonas Gustavsson appears to be progressing steadily along the path of a respectable NHL goaltender . Â They will have a tough test on their hands as they step into the Bell Centre tonight to face a Montreal Canadiens team that has somehow managed to stick around in the conference’s upper echelon. Â As always, a Saturday night tilt between Montreal and Toronto promises to be an exciting one.
The Matchup Stats
Toronto had their way with Montreal last season, and is 4-0-1 against them in their last five meetings. Â Both Leafs goalies have posted excellent records against the Habs in recent history. Â Current tender Jonas Gustavsson in particular seems to rise to the occasion of this classic rivalvry, posting a 2-0-1 line with a .914 SV% Â in his last three (and only) showdowns with the Canadiens. Â We should expect to see more of the same tonight, as the Swedish sophomore himself suggested:
“Games with a big rival are always fun to play because you really want to win those games … thatâ€™s a game Iâ€™m really looking forward to. “
The difference between a consistent, star goalie in the NHL and those that struggle to hold a number 1 position is their mental focus and toughness. Â This added motivation that clearly fuels Gustavsson allows him to literally play at his best in these types of situations, something that bodes well for the Leafs.
Toronto should be happy that Markov is once again sidelined for the Canadiens with a knee injury, as the Russian blueliner has feasted on the powerplay against the Leafs in the past few seasons, throwing down 10 powerplay points (16 in total) in just 18 games. Â On the other side of the ice, Mikhail Grabovski has stepped up in his career against his former team (there’s that psychological motivation again), clicking at a 0.92 PPG pace over 13 games with a whopping 54 PIMs. Â Also taking into consideration Grabovski’s hot stick of late, we should definitely see a strong game out of the Leafs’ best center.
On that note, Leafs nation should keep an eye out tonight for their other center, Tyler Bozak. Â In his young career against the Habs, Bozak has garnered over a point-per-game while averaging north of 21:00 minutes in ice time. Â Yet the Saskatchewan native has been deathly silent of late with no points in his last six games. Â However, with Kadri and Kessel manning his wings on a newly-potent first line, the sophomore is due for a big game in the near future.
For the Leafs to be successful on the road, they usually want to get on the home team quick and attempt to silence the crowd. Â Take that factor out of the game. Â While this would be feasible in most NHL rinks (especially the ACCâ€”otherwise known as the Apathetic Crowd Centre), those pesky Habs fans rarely shut up. Â As such, Toronto will have to play the game as they have in recent years while in Quebec: come out strong, gain the lead and be prepared to fight for it for the remainder of the game as the Canadiens use the energy of the crowd to come at you in waves.
Toronto should be thankful that the Montreal powerplay has spontaneously deflated this year in comparison to its success of recent years. Â The Habs have followed up a 2nd-ranked PP from 2009-2010 with one operating at a mere 14.9% success rate. Â However, the Leafs will be hard-pressed to maintain their own suddenly scorching-hot powerplay against a league-best Canadiens PK (90.1%). Â This is in large part thanks to an extremely quick, aggressive penalty kill strategy employed by Montreal, supported by the stellar play of Carey Price thus far. Â Toronto will need to execute rapid and accurate passes on their man-advantage if they are to win the special-teams battle tonight.
After ruffling a few feathers with his commentary on Kadri’s play Thursday night, Ron Wilson seems to have done what was necessary to keep the prized prospect motivated. Â Kadri will maintain his spot with the big club if he continues to bring the offensive flair of the last two games while working hard to learn from the coaching staff with respect to defensive responsibilities. Â Nazem and his coach appear to be on the same page:
“That stuff doesnâ€™t bother me, it motivates me … I want to play two ways, I want to be on the ice the last five minutes, not sitting on the bench. Â I know exactly what Iâ€™m doing wrong. He points it out for me.”
Reassuring words for the worriers out there amongst us. Â Many eyes will be watching the youngest team in the league tonight (yes, the Leafs…seriously) as they strive to win their third in the row. Â Will the tailspin of late merely be an aberration Â along the way as a young squad learns what it takes to win? Â It will take some time yet before we know exactly what we have in the 2010-2011 Toronto Maple Leafs, but tonight could potentially serve as an important stepping stone to success.