By Declan Kerin and Alec Brownscombe
The dark cloud hanging over an otherwise exciting 5-2 win in Pittsburgh last night was the injury to Joffrey Lupul. “Right on time,” say the haters, as rest of us shake our heads and chalk another one up to the Luck of the Leafs. Dave Nonis and Lupul agree to terms on a five-year contractual commitment, both talk at length about how the player’s injury history is behind him, he takes a puck to the forearm off a slapshot by his own teammate two games later and the x-ray reveals a fracture. It’s a freak injury in no way related to any injury prior, but alas it’s another truncated season for Lupul for health reasons. One imagines he will lose at least 30 games of the 48-game season.
On the upside, James van Riesmdyk, who was struggling to find his rhythm in the first two games, got a bounce to go his way in the second period last night. Next thing you know, he’s pouncing on a Evgeni Malkin giveaway and wristing it bar down for his second of the game. We’ll have to hope JvR has found his game and is ready for some big minutes because the Leafs will need help on the left wing; he may jump to the first unit beside Bozak and Kessel starting tonight against the Islanders. I don’t think he’s played anywhere near his best three games as an NHLer, but after last night he has three points – a confidence builder – and he has been getting himself into good scoring positions.
Pittsburgh wasn’t at their best last night, but it was a victory over a favourite in the East in their home opener and a pretty decisive one from the start of the second onwards. The Leafs’ offense broke out in a big way last night and it wasn’t at the expense of the defensive game, allowing just two to the star-studded Pens, taking the total to just five against in the opening three games. Matt Mistele encapsulated what’s been exciting about the team’s performance if the first three games are any indication:
The Toronto Maple Leafs under Randy Carlyle are, night and day, a different team than the Toronto Maple Leafs under Ron Wilson. Tenacious on the puck, defensively sound, and just visibly organized. It’s still early in the season. It would be foolish to draw sweeping conclusions from the first week.
That last sentence is as important as the rest, and three games is three games – or 5 games in an 82-game context – but with every point carrying added weight this is as good a start as any fan could’ve realistically expected.
Individual player notes from last night:
D. Phaneuf – Exceptionally strong game. Shut down the #1 and the #2 player in the world physically, 25 minutes of hard, punishing hockey and led his team to victory in a convincing defensive effort.
M. Komisarek – though still early days, looks like he did in game one vs. the Habs. Physically engaged forwards all night. One penalty for over exuberance, but other than that, a pretty safe game. +3 last night.
J. McClement – Can’t be overstated how important J.McClement has been to this team early on this season. A very heady defensive forward with a dogged work ethic, excellent anticipation and competency on the puck. 50% in the faceoff circle.
C. MacArthur – MacA had a strong game, and saw ice-time with Kessel when Lupul went down. 1 goal, 1 assist.
M. Brown – Played his game: Skate in straight lines as fast as possible, pressure the forwards with a hard, honest forecheck and wear the other teams’ defence down. Check.
J. Lupul – See above.
J. van Riemsdyk – A coming out party, of sorts, for JVR. He still has a ways to go, but he got a nice goal on the goal crease and another beautiful wrist shot top shelf. His confidence seemed to skyrocket from that point on.
J. Liles – Anthony Petrielli aptly pointed out that he is not paired correctly at the moment. He *is* a powerplay specialist and was paired with Phaneuf last season and they were devastating early on (they were both top 5 in scoring for defenceman in the league before his untimely injury). He blocked a number of shots and was quiet (but even +/-) on the night.
C. Orr – Sometimes you wonder about his ability to play the game, but had has had two enormous scraps this week that have either fired the crowd up or taken them out of the game. I (Declan) was in the Greens at the ACC and it was complete bedlam when he dropped Scott.
C. Gunnarsson – Gunnarsson’s “demotion” might be for the better. In the two games he has played with Komisarek, he has been himself: Quiet, unassuming, reliable… 0 pts and a +3. If you can get consistent play from this pairing, why break them up? Komisarek hurts forward all night long, blocks shots and Gunnarsson gives him a safe outlet to pass to.
N. Kulemin – 3pts (1 was a mystery assist, the other a bad pass that hit a skate and went onto Grabo’s stick). Played well defensively and was a physical presence.
T. Bozak – Clearly playing above his head with Kessel and Lupul, he still manages to control what he can. 55% in the faceoff dot and scored a late goal — his 2nd in 3 games. Despite what’s written or said about him, he just puts his head down and goes about his business. He is bringing a physical dimension to his game that we’ve never seen to this extent before. Early days, but Carlyle’s imprint on this team is impressive.
N. Kadri – Another solid game from Kadri. Drew two penalties and got the Leafs their first goal on a redirection for MacArthur. His commitment to defence from last season is like watching a completely different player. He is also engaging physically much more than he was last season. It suits him well and keeps him engaged in the game.
L. Komarov – the human wrecking ball led the leafs in hits again and was given very hard assignments covering Pittsburgh’s powerplay and handled it with aplomb. Adds smart energy to the PK along with McClement.
J. Gardiner – His timing wasn’t its amazing self, and he mishandled the puck a few times, but he was a positive addition to the Leafs defence. +1 on the night.
M. Kostka – His game is starting to regress slightly. The higher tempo game that was played against Pittsburgh – evident right from puck drop – probably caught him off guard a little bit.
P. Kessel – Official stats say five shots on goal but probably took more. Was buzzing all night long, but is a little snake bitten. Much like the start of last year, he is playing defence and had some determined one-on-one battles, one against Crosby springs to mind. He will never be Wendel Clark, but he does need to engage physically somewhere along the line. Not asking for huge open ice hits, just bump your man or ride him out on the boards. Looking as strong as ever. They will come in heaps when they start going in for him.
M. Grabovski – Another great game against Pittsburgh from Grabo. He seems to relish the matchups against players like Malkin. 1g, 1a, +2, 60% in the faceoff circle.
Just a few quick links…
Re-watch the Orr vs. Engelland tilt from last night. An amazing first 20 seconds of action and good longevity to this one, too. Close fight, but I think The Sheriff is 2 for 2 based on damage inflicted.
A feel good fact from Tyler Bozak’s twitter last night: Last night’s game was equipment manager Brian Papineau’s 2000th on the Leaf bench.