There was a lot ofÂ trepidationÂ going into the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, to be sure. Interviews with Brian Burke – featuring sometimes snippy comments and a seemingly reduced air of confidence – have started to show a dent in his armour. Between having to answer questions about his inability to secure a true #1 centerman, the job security of his friend and colleague, Ron Wilson, or the investment of faith in what could be a one-year wonder in net with James Reimer, it’s certain to have had its effect on him.
Ron Wilson is sure to a be a lame-duck coach if the 2011-12 Leafs get off to a bad start. As good of a job Brian Burke has done rebuilding the entire organization at all levels, there is only so much losing a team can take before fingers start to be pointed at Father Burke, himself.
Key pre-season injuries to top 6 centerman Tim Connolly, center-turned-winger Nazem Kadri and a suspension to Clarke MacArthur all added even more uncertainty to a team that needed solid footing to start off their 2011-12 campaign.Â They got it last nightâ€”and they got it in spades.
The opening frame saw the Leafs look tight and lost. There were turnovers galore, missed assignments, slow foot speed and the type of overall terribly shaky play you would expect from a young team playing on the biggest stage. The pressure is always immense, but it gets bigger every year there is no post-season play in Toronto. The team seemed to try and counter attack a strong trap game that the Canadiens were playing with a lot of failed 30-40 foot stretch passes. Montreal played aÂ patient first period and the Leafs were playing defence for almost the entire time, it seemed. Both teams played poorly, but the Leafs were downright terrible. The Habs outshot the Leafs 14-4 in the first period, and drew two penalties to the Leafs’ zero.Â JamesÂ Reimer was most certainly the calming influence and let them get settled down for the second period. Seasons past, the Leafs never received that sort of goaltending to let them get away with play like that of the first. It felt very much different this game and now, this season.
If there were doubts in the first period (there were many), they were quickly washed away in the second. With the Leafs flying, Montreal started to play Toronto’s game and were quickly caught playing reactive hockey to a high-tempo game that they couldn’t compete with. DionÂ Phaneuf Â had his hand firmly on the tiller Â and was loud on the ice with lots of communication. It was audible on TV and well received by the young team, with the Captain taking command and settling the team down, resulting in crisp D-2-D passes and first passes to forwards. Toronto’s forwards did a much better job of getting themselves into passing lanes at speed and Monteal was backing off early on defensive pressure, opening the game up more and more. Â It appears that Toronto’s game from all four lines will be speed. TheÂ penaltiesÂ in the second period shifted in Toronto’s favour due to their quick foot movement and constant pressure.
Toronto’s penalty kill was in good form. Lombardi showed he still has some jump in his game with some savvy penalty killing, followed by a great effort on a short-handed goal… one of his specialties and something that Leafs haven’t seen since the days of Bill Berg. Once he fully gets his game rounded into form and gets his ‘game legs’, he’ll be seeing time on the first unit Kessel Line, no doubt.
Phil Kessel started the game slowly, but got more comfortable as the game wore on. From around the mid point on, he had the bit between his teeth, as did Joffrey Lupul (who caused the neutral zone turnover on the Phaneuf goal). Both had at least two solid scoring chances apiece they should have buried. Kessel was hesitant to shoot in the first and was making curious pass/shot selections while looking a little tight. He did, however, setup a nice pass for Dion Phaneuf on a broken rush that the Captain absolutely hammered home. Canadiens star goaltender, Carey Price didn’t have a chance on the play.
While the Leafs kept the pressure up in the third period, they essentially reverted into more of a defensive posture while not backing off too much.Â The Canadiens were able to get some more scoring chances, but between James Reimer’s steady, economical play and Mike Komisarek and the rest of the Leafs’ defence playing excellent shut-down hockey, they were firmly in control.
Game in 6
Ron Wilson Post-Game
Mike Komisarek Post-Game
James Reimer Post-Game
David Steckel Post-Game
Matthew Lombardi Post-Game
While there wasn’t one line that dominated, support from the forwards helped make the defence play as well as they did. All four lines were rolling, and that’s the storyline from the first game of the season. There is depth and options at every position for the first time in a long time.
While the Leafs were lit up in the Barilkosphere for picking up David Steckel over waiver option Blair Betts (as Montreal did), early indications are that Toronto made a savvy (and cheap) move by picking up this faceoff specialist. While he won’t win many footraces, he has size that the Leafs don’t have (he’s their largest forward) and a faceoffÂ percentageÂ that led the league last season. He was a well deserved third star last night.
A “pick n’ shovel” man originally drafted in the first round (30th overall), he wasÂ initiallyÂ expected to have some offensive upside, but changed his game to a defensive specialist that can dominate a faceoff circle. Last night, Wilson put him out with another centre numerous times to take the defensive zone faceoff before he peeled to the bench for the respective line’s winger. He could have easily been the Leafs’ second star with his performance. He does appear to have decent hands and could pot some important goals this season with some more ice time in key situations. I expect that he will see some unusual powerplay time with his faceoff abilities and his large frame. His resume dictates he can occasionally put the puck in the net, so that’s something I’m sure the coaching staff will try to harness. Another positive to this signing is that all the Leafs’ centermen (there are a lot of them) will be practicing against him daily, which can only increase the team’s overall faceoff percentage. Blair Betts who?
When you notice Mike Komisarek, it’s usually a bad thing and usually of the hand-on-the-forehead variety. Good games over parts of the past two seasons for Komisarek were the games where you didn’t notice him. Tonight he was a big standout and most fans were happy to shower him with compliments. When he plays his game, we’re lucky to have a player like him, contract-be-damned. Outside of the play during the whistles, which was excellent, he provided a huge amount of intimidation after the whistle. ManyÂ skirmishes after the whistle involved ‘Komi’ in the faces of Habs players, backing them off Reimer and letting him play confidently without fear of being run. That’s the sort of stuff he brings that goes unmentioned but it gives the young players on the team courage. And courage is contagious.
Matt Frattin showed that he wasn’t an injury fill in for Nazem Kadri with his smart, physical play and great shot/release. Playing lots of minutes on the Grabovski line certainly padded a lot of his play, but it shows the amount of faith the coaching staff have in him to play on what operates as the Leafs first line.
Other notes: I thought that Gardiner looked goodâ€”not great. He has immense talent and we are sure to see a few highlight reel goals from him this season. He was one of the reasons that Komisarek’s game is rounding back to where it was when he was a star in Montrealâ€”he was paired with Markov who complemented his rugged, stay-at-home style. I was able to take in a pre-season game against Buffalo at the ACC and Jake Gardiner was the best player, forward or defence, on both teams (Grabovski was right there, too). I was totally blown away with: 1) his overall skating, passing ability, and 2) the way he was anticipating the play before it happened. I have no idea what his ceiling is, but I think you have to go back to former Leaf Bryan Berard to see a player like that. It would be unfair to start comparing him to former Ranger/Leaf /Bruin Brian Leetch. Oops, I think I just did. Â ;-)
“a wild stat with #Leafs wearing ’67 gear tonite: Total goals vs. Mtl: 1,967, against: 2,167, total reg. season points: 667″
- Reimer’s opener just what Leafs need – Pierre LeBrun chimes in on Reimer and what he means to the buds.
- Cox: Resourceful win good sign for Leafs – Damien Cox gives a nice backhanded compliment
- Keon lit the fire in Leafs-Habs rivalry – Some ol’timey Leaf/Hab talk from Red Fisher, Montreal Gazette… one of the great Montreal hockey writers.
- Reimer leads Leafs past Habs – James Mirtle
- Buffery: Lombardi’s return a triumph – Buffery on Lombardi’s road to recovery.
- Steckel an instant draw – Rob Longley on the Leafs new face-off man
- Reimer shakin’ all over – more on Reimer from Mike Zeisberger
- Habs need a new approach – Jacque Martin says the Habs PP needs work. (Terry Koshan)
- Better luck next time, Habs – Terry Koshan (again)
- Surprises Abound In Leafs Season-Opening Win – Mike Ulmer, mapleleafs.com