Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs (10-6-0) take on the Tampa Bay Lighting (7-6-1) and look to replicate last year’s success in a season series that saw Toronto outscore Tampa 20-7 in their 4-game battle. The Leafs have won six of seven on the road while Tampa Bay Lightning have dropped their last three on home ice.
“We’re still very much a work in progress,” were Randy Carlyle’s words after the team earned its 10th win in its sixteenth game last night against the Panthers. Complacency is being beaten out of the this club, with the coaches keenly aware of the type of start the Leafs got off to last season and where that ended up. The Leafs are looking to reverse their fortunes this season and seem to be a more detail-oriented club with better coaching and solid 1-2 goaltending from Scrivens and Reimer, who at last check had the best combined GAA in the league.
A team commitment to defence and small, detailed board work and puck management is what is helping the Leafs win hockey games in the early going, allied with what appears to be more confident, aggressive goaltending. Clearing rebounds and second chances and forcing shooters to the outside for lower percentage chances is allowing Scrivens and Reimer to play their game at a higher level. Please don’t let anyone tell you that this is completely unsustainable due to unusually high shooting percentages or lights-out goaltending. Rebound control is still an issue with Scrivens, as is his puck handling ability. Both goalies are getting good looks at most of the shots and the ones that they do bobble or struggle with are often moved to safety.
Toronto has had a light schedule to date and must look at this back-to-back game as a tough test against against high-powered offence led by 2012 Hart Trophy winner, Steven Stamkos (9g 12a 21pts) and augmented by Martin St. Louis (4g 17a 21pts), Vinny Lecavalier (5g 10a 15pts), Teddy Purcell (4g 11a 15pts) and Cory Conacher (5g 8a 12pts). Tampa has had an up-and-down season so far and are 4-5-1 in their last 10. Toronto is, as we know, coming off two shutout victories against Ottawa and Florida. They have been giving up a lot of shots against, something they will want to reverse with the solid top 6 of Tampa that can burn a defence at a moment’s notice.
Always a good, insightful interview - Greg Cronin had this to say at practice this morning:
“The image that we’re generating is that tough to play against, physical image and I think it’s represented in the hit totals. We lead the NHL in hits now and it’s something we’ve wanted to build into the culture of being a Toronto Maple Leaf with this generation of hockey players. The more players that do it willing and naturally, it just becomes a contagious type of thing.”
Hot and Cold: While balanced scoring seems to be the theme of the season to date, Toronto would like to see more out of Grabovski and Kulemin, who appeared to be offensively limited in their shut-down role. Grabovski is goalless in 10 games and his offensive contribution needs to be elevated, as does Kulemin’s. Dion Phaneuf is riding a hot hand right now. The Leafs Captain is riding a 5 game pts streak with 2 goals and 4 assists. Nazem Kadri has 5 points in his last 4 games.