Post Game Mashup: Reality Check

Post Game Mashup: Reality Check

by -
629

Photo: Charles Krupa/Sports Tri-Cities.com

The Toronto Maple Leafs met their first serious opponent this season, facing the defending champions, the Boston Bruins, last night at TD Garden. It was a wake-up call for the Leafs, who have mostly faced non-playoff teams as opponents and have received out worldly performances from Phil Kessel to save the game for them, game-after-game. Toronto has had glaring issues with their specialty teams, and even their 5-on-5 play, that has to be raising big concern for the players and coaches involved despite a 4-1-1 start. Facing the Boston Bruins brought this team back to earth and revealed a number of areas in need of work, merely covered up by Phil Kessel’s dominance in the four games preceding last night’s tilt.

It’s not inconceivable that the Leafs would have had a 1-4 or 2-3 record going into the game against Boston if not for their offensive leader’s best streak in a Leafs sweater. This team has not clicked as a unit from game one and it finally caught up with them in the form of an embarrassing 6-2 loss. There was very little to like about Toronto’s game and, as has become tradition, Toronto’s stacked defence core largely underperformed.

First Period

Finally, Toronto started off the game with a lot of jump, which has been missing from their game in the first five games of the season. Typically, they have been outplayed heavily in the first period, and this was the first game, at least in the early going, that started with Toronto taking the play to the opposition. Toronto was playing ‘their game’ and it ended up being end-to-end hockey, which the Leafs seem to thrive on. David Steckel opened the scoring off a nice play from Nazem Kadri out of the corner. Toronto looked good up until that point, but it seemed that the Orr vs. Thornton fight really woke the Bruins up, as the TSN crew pointed out.

From there on in, Boston took control of the game and played their hard forechecking, relentless style that Toronto could not match. Boston started to clog up the passing lanes and showed off a quick transition game, overwhelming the boys in blue and white. It started to get ugly as Boston walked all over the Leafs, finishing just about every check on our defencemen. This coughed up pucks in Boston’s favour and led to a barrage of Bruin chances. Toronto has shown a penchant for allowing sizable separation between forwards and defence when backed onto their heels, and with no support from forwards, the defenceman were making bad plays because of it.

Second Period

The Leafs came out flat, again, but the one bright spot was the play of Nazem Kadri. Nazem was engaged and making his plays in deep, less dangerous areas (ie: not at the blueline). He was still playing a lot on the perimeter and needs to get into scoring areas to make a bigger impact on the game. He was one of Toronto’s best, if not the best, forward during parts of the game. A combination of Boston playing less than flat out and Toronto playing a bit better seemed to get the Leafs back in the game. Toronto started to get their speed game up and running, and Boston started to look vulnerable. Phil Kessel had a quiet night, looking timid up against Chara, and was kept from playing in the danger areas. One of the things that was hampering the Leafs in the 1st and the early part of the 2nd period was a lack of physical contact. As the period wore on, the Leafs slowly starting to finish their checks and it showed in their play. In the first period, Boston were making their first passes uncontested and with sticks firmly on the ice. As Toronto started to forecheck, the Boston defence began having to defend themselves, their sticks were off the ice and their d-to-d passes started to stray off the mark.

In what has been an on-going debate in the early season, Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles looked awfully weak physically and were being beat in one-on-one battles in front of the net. As much as Mike Komisarek was a goat in the game against the Winnipeg Jets, his physical presence was sorely missed against the tough Boston forwards. Cody Franson had another game that showed why he didn’t make the team out of camp. He was constantly a step behind the play and was the direct cause of two goals be simply because he was not able to physically handle the much smaller forwards in front of the net. He needs more playing time to work the kinks out of his game, but the soft goals being allowed on his part are making it hard for the coaching staff to keep him in the lineup—a catch 22.

Komisarek will almost certainly be reinserted into the lineup, but it seems, in the early going, that it is uncertain what player you are going to get with him. He has shown signs of being a proper shut down defenceman with penalty killing capabilities, the type of blueliner every team would love to have. But he has also shown a lack of confidence with the puck, making him a liability when executing plays out of his own zone, and an inclination for poor decision making in his own zone, specifically in front of the net. It felt like his game was rounding into form (and his trade stock increasing) before he was downright dreadful against Winnipeg. Previous games, he has looked like an ornery defenceman who makes the front of the Leaf net inhabitable for the opposition. Here’s to hoping that he can build his confidence back up to where it needs to be. Cody Franson had a great first game back in the lineup, but was truly dreadful against the Bruins. As many NHL-calibre defencemen as the Leafs have, and as many dollars that they have committed to the back end, the 5-6-7 blueliners are an achilles heel for the team at the moment and are turning into more of a “story” than they should be.

As the period was starting to wear on, the Leafs started to turn on the speed and were beginning to back up the Boston defence. Another problem with the Leafs’ game, as  pointed out by the TSN crew, was the inability to win a faceoff—when it mattered—against the Bruins. David Steckel was ineffective against the Bruins centermen, specifically Patrice Bergeron. Boston had stopped pressing as hard as they were and took a more defensive posture. Toronto kept pressing, bringing their up-tempo style to the Bruins and the game was slowly starting to shift back into their favour. Of note, Matt Frattin was having a good game and is crusing for his first goal anytime now. He has hit many a post and is totally snakebitten.  On the opposite side of the ledger, Mikhail Grabovski looks confused and is not playing with confidence. He needs to get his game back to where it was last season as he’s making poor pass and shot selections. He looks like a shell of where he was at the end of last season—a dominant center that could play with the best in the league. It’s only a matter of time before he gets his game back. As curious as it was to see David Steckle on the 1st line for a good portion of the game, he was looking good in front of the net, causing chaos in an area that we simply do not have enough presence. Players that have the fortitude to stand in front of the net and take punishment to make those plays are hard to come by, but it’s an area that Brian Burke surely stews over on a regular basis—the Toronto Maple Leafs just don’t have a player that can do this on a regular basis and these are the sort of games that require that kind of play. Towards the end of the 2nd period, Joffrey Lupul was playing well, driving the net and controlling the play. He had a number of scoring changes and, between he and Phil Kessel, looked the more confident of the two.

Third Period

So far this season, the third period is when the Leafs turn the pressure on and begin to dominate the game. A bad defensive miscue on the Lucic goal by Phaneuf, who was caught on a bad pinch, saw Tyler Seguin hit Lucic with a beautiful pass for an open net finish. The nails were in the coffin.

The Monster had played decently to this point, but was fighting rebounds and second chances all night. Once they piled it on, he imploded, which is the opposite of what they get from James Reimer. Reimer seems to plays the same 1-0 as he does 5-0. His ability to shake off bad goal after bad goal is the strength of his mental makeup. Toronto changed from a 1-2-2 system to a 2-1-2, opening the game up a lot, but the Bruins were running roughshod over the Leafs at this stage. Jake Gardiner had a nice rush which resulted in a Grabovski goal. Hopefully that increases Grabovski’s confidence as he looks to get his game back to where it needs to be.

***

The Leafs are a work in progress. We got beat up last night in all aspects of the game by a team in Boston that has shown you can win cups scoring by committee and buying into your coach’s systems.  Team toughness is something that is difficult to play against and in that area the Leafs showed some glaring warts against the defending champs. Toronto can skate with them and have the personnel to get the job done, but were extremely scattered and played the type of game that has got them into trouble early in this season—30-40 ft passes that are broken up and easily countered. Toronto needs to play a simple game in order to have success. Period. When they cheat and try to make up for a lack of quick movement through the neutral zone, it leads to catastrophic breakdowns that only James Reimer’s goaltending seems to settle down. That doesn’t mean getting away from their speed game, but it means short crisp passes that has support from all the forwards and a shorter distance between the forwards and the defence. When Toronto are on their back heels, they play the opposite of this game and good teams can crack them open with relative ease. A simple game, with short deliberate passes, has been Toronto’s successful trait this year. When they get “fancy” (aka: lazy), they get outplayed badly.

In a sense, I wish this game came earlier in the season so it could’ve better prepared them for this road trip. The team has been playing poorly and would have a sub .500 record if it weren’t for the play of Kessel. Period.

This is something that Burke, Nonis, Poulin, Dudley, Fletcher, Loiselle and co. would have noticed already. The accolades that the Leafs have been receiving have been unjust so far and the team is not buying into a system and/or the systems that are in place are simply not working. Not having the luxury of being in the dressing room or being part of the practices, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the coaching, but I can state the following – the team is starting very poorly, the power play and penalty kill have been atrocious, and the Leafs are only competing for on average 30 minutes a night. That’s been the case with every single game so far this season. It was only a matter of time before this resulted in a blow-out.

Toronto’s defence has been downright terrible. That’s not to say they are terrible. It is one of the highest paid backends in the league. It is oozing with talent in all the different departments that a good team requires. If early signs are an indication, this is the fourth year in a row one of the best backends in the Eastern Conference (on paper) has been a considerable disappointment. The defence has seen many a makeover and the results have thus far remained the same.

Perhaps playing poor quality teams that are unable to defend leads has given the Leafs an inflated sense of self confidence that belies their play. The amount of players on the backend that have been or are about to be run out of town because they seemingly can no longer play is downright scary. Other than a total overhaul of the defence corps, this could again be a trend this season—and a frustrating one at that. How many more defencemen need to be ushered in to fix a cyclically porous group? The personnel changes have been wholesale from top to bottom and there are only so many (successful) changes that you can make before you have to look elsewhere for answers. Thankfully, there are enough gifted hockey minds in the front office that collective wisdom should prevail.

This team has more than a enough talent, on paper, to compete for a playoff spot. We were badly outplayed by a team that we beat in last season’s series and had no answer for anything that they threw at us tonight. Toronto is punching below their weight and are playing a disorganized style of play that is difficult to watch and difficult to get behind. Toronto has depth at almost all positions for the first time in many years and yet the output is seemingly no different. This is not a knee jerk reaction to one game, it’s a culmination of every game since the start of the season – poorly played and swept over by one (or two) players carrying the team to victory.

***

Game in Six:

Jake Gardiner:

Ron Wilson: