Another year, another roster and yet again another season filled with more questions than answers, losses than wins and still; a yearning desire from a fan-base so passionate and desperate for a glimmer of post season play. That would be the form in which 2010 reflects the Toronto Maple Leafs and their progress back to respectability. Looking to close out 2010 and the back half of a decade filled with mediocrity, the Maple Leafs welcomed the Columbus Blue Jackets to Toronto in hopes of putting one skate forward in their attempt to forge a more successful 2011.
Showing some early jump in the first period, the quick pace from the Leafs pushed the Blue Jackets and opened the play up for both squads as they began to trade chances. After a few close calls where defensive coverage went astray, the Leafs were able to get the early and important first goal as Clarke Macarthur lead a 2 on 1 with Nikolai Kulemin. MacArthur lost control of the puck in close, and Kulemin was rewarded for his hard drive to the net with a goal and the 1-0 lead. Replacing new father Mikhail Grabovski, Darryl Boyce was inserted into the lineup and was awarded with his first career NHL point on the play. It would take only one of a handful of early giveaways to cost the Leafs shortly after, and the Blue Jackets would get on the board. Kristian Huselius would breakaway from the Leafs defense and beat Jonas Gustavsson through the legs for the tying goal. Late in the period, Rostislav Klesla slammed Joey Crabb into the boards and would be called for boarding, giving the Leafs a chance with the man advantage. The Leaf powerplay, which has been clicking of late continued that trend. Phil Kessel used an effort against the boards to feed the puck out front to Tyler Bozak, who went up high and over Steve Mason for the 2-1 lead to close-out the first period.
The second period opened up with the same quick pace evident in the first, and midway through the frame a giveaway would once again allow the Blue Jackets back into the game. A bouncy play into the feet of Francois Beauchemin ended up on the stick of Kristian Huselius for his second goal of the game. The Blue Jackets tightened up their checking and began to force pressure onto the Leafs defense. Unable to capitalize on a few chances however would see the game remain tied heading into the second intermission.
Although pressured throughout the first and second periods, the Maple Leafs were able to keep out of penalty trouble. A questionable holding call on Joey Crabb put the Leafs shorthanded for the first time and the Blue Jackets powerplay took advantage of their first opportunity. Captain Rick Nash fired a shot that was tipped in the slot by RJ Umberger and over Gustavsson for the go ahead goal. The Blue Jackets would continue their defensive grasp on a tiring Leaf squad and controlled most of the play in the final period. The Leafs seemed to struggle to transition out of their zone, but generated a few chances late in the third only to be turned away by Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason. Perhaps the best chance to force overtime saw Colby Armstrong fire a Tyler Bozak pass wide and with their net empty, the Leafs were unable to find the games tying goal. A strong indication of their weakness in 2010 is the Leafs’ inconsistency during games, and in a similar fashion they closed out the year on the wrong side of the win column.
I’d argue that the Leafs’ problems aren’t as singular as offensive, defensive or goaltending. When their defensive game has been at its best it has allowed the transition into offense to deploy smoothly. Defensive lapses and missed assignments saw their coverage weaken tonight, leading to several turnovers and costing a few goals. After the game, Head Coach Ron Wilson spoke of his team’s defensive play.
“I mean, I think we played ok in the first period, but we were awful in the second. Tonight our defense had a tough night. Handling pucks, misreading rushes and some pretty bad giveaways. That slowed our offense down. Partners weren’t supporting one another and we took the speed right out of our game. Our forwards weren’t getting the pucks when they should, so we spent a lot of time in our end.”
In Tuesday’s game against the Hurricanes, a bright spot from the tough loss was the play of Joey Crabb. Tonight we saw a similar effort from another Marlie contributor in Darryl Boyce. Called up to replace Mikhail Grabovski, Boyce was given the assignment of centering the team’s top line between MacArthur and Kulemin. Registering an assist on the night and filling the void for over sixteen minutes of playing time, Boyce was recognized by Wilson for taking advantage of his opportunity.
“I thought he played pretty well. He handled a tough situation well. He was thrown in on essentially our top line and made a nice play on the first goal. Simple little plays and some blocked shots, so I thought he did a nice job.”
Unfortunately for the Leafs it was a job that was not performed well by others. The loss that sees them finish the calendar year on a poor note will dig their hole yet another notch deeper. Nothing short of a miraculous turnaround in 2011 will see this group of players inch closer to playoff contention. And the unlikely-hood of that turnaround is reason to believe that 2011 will bring significant changes to this Leaf team and new resolutions for some of its players and management alike. If he can move an underperforming body or two off the back end and import forward help, or if Wilson remains Leafs coach into next season, are a few of the biggest among a plethora of questions Burke must answer in 2011.