The Leafs move to 11-7-0 and improve their once-dismal home record to 4-4. Tonight, they ground the head of the down-and-out Sabres into the dirt with their boot, new coach be damned. Through three games against Buffalo, one of which Miller stole, it’s safe to say the Leafs are a clearly superior team to at least one of their divisional rivals.
1 – The Leafs missed their chance to grab an early one in the first. Leo Komarov pounced on a lost faceoff, caused a turnover out of Mike Weber in front and would’ve put the Leafs up 1-0 if not for a miraculous glove save from Miller. The Leafs were buzzing on the forecheck and creating opportunities off the cycle by outskating a slower team, but fell off as the period progressed. I can’t blame you if you were worryingly recalling the Miller show from the home opener.
2 – Later in the first, Tyler Bozak misplayed the puck in deep and got caught up ice. Gunnarsson made a bad decision stepping up at the blueline while outnumbered on the left side and got passed around, leaving Kostka to defend a rapidly developing 2 on 1. The lone forward back, James van Riemsdyk, might have made the wrong call fading to the right side and not supporting Gunnarsson, but Bozak was MIA on the backcheck. Ennis snipes far side on Scrivens and it’s 1-0.
3 – A much better effort from the first PP unit coming out for the start of the 2nd period. When PP1 is clicking, it usually involves Kessel roaming around and stirring the drink. This time he found Phaneuf at the top of the circle with a great pass in the perfect spot for a one timer. Dion Phaneuf drilled it low and hard, something he’s been much better at doing recently, for his 100th career goal. 1-1.
4 – The Leafs restored their forecheck and offensive pressure in the 2nd, dominating play and outshooting the Sabres 15-6. Late in the period, the Leafs perfectly executed their set breakout play off a defensive zone faceoff, as Kessel came across and picked up the ring around up the boards for a rush up ice. If you recall, this cost the Leafs a goal against the Islanders when Cody Franson didn’t send it along the boards with enough umph. This time, it worked out as Kessel and JvR end up in a 2 on 1, Kessel perfectly measured a pass around the outstretched stick of the Sabre defender and JvR finished off his 10th, the first Leaf to reach double digits.
5 – JvR’s circling around the zone a la Alex Ovechkin in the 2nd period was a good display of the speed he has once he hits top gear. Beyond his obvious ability to finish, his good stickhandling skills for a big man and his ability to provide a screen with his size, his speed is really key to his success opposite Kessel. You need to be able to at least keep up with Kessel to fully reap the benefits of playing with such a talent. What’s Schenn up to?
6 – Speaking of whom, what amazing 2nd and 3rd periods from Kessel. Kessel is not one dimensional just because he doesn’t hit… He’s a dynamic, elite offensive talent who is just as good as a set up man, and makes everyone he plays with miles better (see Lupul and JvR’s spikes in production). That doesn’t even need to be pointed out at this stage. What we are seeing with JvR to start this season is almost identical to how Lupul started last season.
7 – John Scott tried to inspire his team by picking out McLaren early in the third and McLaren cleaned Scott’s clock. McLaren worked the jersey grab-jab with furry while connecting with the right hand in turn. A great fight by McLaren against a bigger opponent. The connection between lots of fighting and winning is a correlation here, but it’s tough to prove causation… it sure is nice to have a team that has that swagger. The Leafs have won the vast majority of their fights this season.
8 – The team did a dangerous amount of sitting back for about 5 minutes in the middle of third with the game at 2-1, but the Leafs got a big lift from a great shift by Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri. Komarov went out and started buzzing as per usual, proceeded to toss the massive Tyler Meyers off the puck, Kadri picked it up, sidestepped a Sabre and drew a penalty. Jochen Hecht then went to clear the puck on the ensuing powerplay, put it over the glass and the Leafs go onto a 5 on 3.
9 – Awesome puck movement on the ensuing 5 on 3 eventually found JvR backdoor for his 11th goal of the season. That goal should’ve already happened after Kessel found JvR in the same spot with a brilliantly measured pass, only to be robbed by Miller’s glove. Franson really adds to the unit’s puck movement and found JvR well for his 11th goal and Franson’s 11th point (4th on the team in points). James van Riemsdyk is one off the league lead in goals (WOW).
10 – Got to say, I thought Miller was being a real poor sport and teammate by complaining to the media about his team’s play. If tonight’s game is any indication, he really is getting hung out to dry.
10b – The PK and the PP are both climbing the rankings and the Leafs are holding steady by avoiding consecutive losses. A lot to be excited about at the ACC tonight. Good time to be a Leaf fan.