Hope Floats

Hope Floats

James Reimer (photo credit: Reuters)
(Photo Credit: Reuters)

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“Put a candle in the window,
’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going,
I’ll be coming home soon.
Long as I can see the light.”

– John Fogerty

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What was long-anticipated, yet for a momentous spell hung within the balance of miraculous possibility, at last became a reality on Tuesday night as the Maple Leafs were eliminated from playoff contention following an inspiring second-half performance which nearly accomplished a level of achievement rarely seen in sports: a late-season climb from the bottom of the standings to a berth in the post-season.

From the doldrums of the league’s basement the Leafs arose, challenging until the season’s final week those teams chasing the final playoff positions in the East.  While many within Leafs Nation may be quick to hang their heads and sigh “not again” as their favorite sons finish a 6th straight season bereft of a playoff appearance, there is something different about this team than those of years’ past; indeed, their late-season rally was far beyond the typical month-of-March surges to which Leafs fans have become all too familiar.

A simple comparison of the Leafs’ performance in key statistical areas during two identifiable periods of the season reveal a team drastically improved over the second half of the season … as well as a hint at the reason their latter-half transformation took place.

Legend
Span = total timeframe, Record = team record during timeframe,
GF/gm = goals for per game, GA/game = goals allowed game (excluding empty-net goals),
ShA/gm = shots allowed per game, Sv%/span = save percentage during timeframe

Span Record GF/gm GA/gm ShA/gm Sv%/span
Oct 7 – Dec 30 13-19-4 2.33 2.92 28.0 0.895
Jan 1 – Apr 6 24-13-8 2.95 2.82 33.1 0.915

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The difference is quite stark, isn’t it? A couple of notes:

  • January 1st, 2011 was the date of James Reimer’s first start (he had previously faced four shots and allowed no goals in a relief appearance in December). Of the 45 games played since (and including) January 1st, Reimer has appeared in 35.
  • Shots allowed in the second half rose dramatically, to the tune of an additional 5 per game while the team’s overall save percentage rose by a remarkable 20 points during that same span.
  • Noteworthy is the spike in goal production which accompanied the improvements in the numbers above.

The difference, quite clearly, is the quality of goaltending the team has received in the second half. Some would be quick to point to the parallel surge in offense as a reason for the team’s success, yet that is more a product of the improved goaltending than it is the reason for it.

There is a reason GM Brian Burke has always adhered to the mantra of building a team “from the net out”. That reason is twofold: 1. a team cannot win if it cannot keep the puck out of its own net (the pre-Jan numbers certainly reflect that), and 2. a team’s players cannot perform to their fullest extent unless they have confidence in their netminder (allowing a higher number of shots, while also scoring more, suggests a post-Dec team more confident in its ability take risks).

If there is one thing the Leafs showed the Toronto faithful during their second-half surge, it was a renewed sense of confidence. Gone were the nights of team mailing it in halfway through a third period trailing by a couple of goals; in its place was a team that would scratch and claw until the final buzzer, endeavoring toward a victory — and often succeeding — because they believed. Not only in their ability to score, but in their goaltender’s ability to make the big save when it was needed.

It’s an intriguing dynamic, that which exists between a goaltender’s ability to make the key save at the key moment and the momentum effect carried forward onto the rest of his teammates.  Noteworthy is the fact that the team’s overall goals against per game did not change much (2.92 to 2.82 over the two spans), yet the spike in save percentage was something to behold (up 20 points, from .895 to .915).  Considering the loss of two veteran, minute-crunching defenders had the predictable result of a vastly higher shots allowed/game average (from 28.0 to 33.1), one could be forgiven to expect the goaltending numbers to decline.

And yet the numbers improved, despite the higher number of shots and subsequent increased scoring chances against. The goals against is telling in that teams were scoring roughly the same number of goals against the Leafs … but even more telling is the rise in save percentage despite the goals against, an indicator that not only were more pucks being stopped, but also that the saves were being made at the key moments they had to be made.

Throughout the season, the comment was issued quite frequently (and quite correctly) that the team simply appeared to play differently in front of both Gustavsson and J-S Giguere than they did in front of Reimer.  The answer as to why this was is simple, and underscores the argument made here: confidence.

Half of goaltending is ability, but the other half — the more important half — is psychological. All goaltenders will allow bad goals from time-to-time, no matter what the nameplate on the back of their jersey says. But a goaltender who is able to avoid getting ‘rattled’ and consistently bail his teammates out during those moments where they have let up in their own games inspires a certain level of confidence among his teammates, and allows them to focus on their roles within the gameplan at hand.

What we would often see in games involving Giguere or Gustavsson was the “fronting effect”; that being, players getting away from their assigned coverages in an attempt to collapse in front of the goaltender following a bad goal or a display of rattled confidence (usually via positioning/aggressiveness), often leading to goals against created by way of the inadvertent screens created in the process. And from there, a simple domino effect would occur: a bad goal at a bad time hinders the goaltender’s confidence, and that of his teammates; his teammates get away from doing their jobs in effort to collapse the zone; further goals are created by the lack of coverage and resultant screens; the goaltender’s confidence continues to sag … and on and on.

As the old adage goes, the moment a player is afraid to make a mistake is the moment in which he will make one.

The theory of building from the net out is simple: a goaltender who can make the key saves at the key moments inspires not only confidence, but also an observed level of calm within his teammates. If the players are able to focus on their assignments, and on making plays without worrying about their goaltender, the result will be assertiveness in place of tentativeness, smart decisions in place of hurried or ‘panic’ decisions, and a willingness to take offensive risks in place of allowing the other team to control the gameplay. The results during the second-half, particularly in the goals-for category, speak for themselves.

We have been witness to all of that since the emergence of James Reimer as the Leafs’ starting goaltender. And we have been witness to his teammates’ strong performances as a result of the confidence his play has provided them. It may have taken Brian Burke much longer than initially expected to find the goaltender who could provide that base — or, be that metaphorical rock — upon which any successful team must rely, but it is not at all unrealistic to suggest that early indications are he has finally found his man.

The most reasonable of pre-season predictions had the Maple Leafs in contention for a playoff spot this season, with many suggesting that if they did get in, they would do so in no better a position than 7th or 8th seed in their conference.  Despite pre-January start which placed the team well into the recesses of the standings’ basement, and despite the losses of two veteran defenders,  they were able to battle their way into contention for that 8th seed over the next 40+ games, only to fall short in the season’s final week.

Aside from the departures of both Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle, the most significant change over the second half was the call-up of James Reimer, whose unassuming demeanor both on and off the ice serves to ward off concerns of “one year wonder” and “sophomore slump” borne of prior experiences in prior years. The difference this time around? Reimer is young, and so are his teammates (second youngest group in the NHL); unlike previous squads, this group has an opportunity to grow together, compete together, and continue to inspire each other for several years to come.

In short, the success which lies just around the next corner for the Maple Leafs is not of the fleeting variety; it is a level of success poised to be both sustainable and self-propagating, buoyed by the experiences gained this season, and the culture of accountability, belief in oneself and — most importantly — the belief in and support for one another which has become an essential component of the Leafs’ locker room.

Therein one can see, closer by the day, the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel traversed the past six seasons.

And therein lies all the reason one needs to believe, legitimately at last, in the direction in which the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

[email protected]
twitter.com/garrettbauman

(The obligatory Creedence reference leading off the post can be enjoyed here.)

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