Game Preview: Seeking a rebound in Pittsburgh

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All those cliches about needing to respond to an embarrassing loss with a big character effort will apply to tonight’s meeting against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Leafs have played well against the Penguins since the start of last season, going 2-1-1 while scoring 14 goals across the four outings.

The Leafs and Penguins play a similar game, and in the past that has suited the Leaf offense just fine. The Penguins will trade chances as a skilled team with speed, and the Leafs have found it less difficult to find space and generate speed through the neutral zone against Pittsburgh than teams that force them to earn their inches and win board battles.

Most recently, the Leafs got the better of the Penguins in late October with a 4-1 win. That was also coming off a lopsided loss to the Blue Jackets, although not as lopsided as Monday night’s debacle. Will history will repeat itself tonight with a good response from the Leafs?

Carlyle and the players credited a ratcheting up of their physical game as part of their success in the October 26 win. Dave Bolland was key to the victory with two goals and general awesomeness, helping keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet the first time in 10 meetings with the Blue and White, but as we well know the Leafs’ Swiss Army Knife is on the shelf for the foreseeable future.

Getting back on track offensively

Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk each have three points in 10 November games. As much talk as there is about this being a predictable regression for the Leafs as of late, this is an unusually slow period for the two dynamic offensive players and surely one that won’t last.

Kessel and JvR both have a good history of production against the Penguins. Kessel has 3 goals and 7 points in his last five meetings with the Penguins, while James van Riemsdyk has six points in four games against the Penguins since joining the Leafs.

For the Leafs in general, there may be some rush opportunities available to them tonight. If not, we should expect this team has taken Carlyle’s simplify mantra to heart. More fancy plays in dangerous areas of the ice and overpassing would be frustrating to see after Monday night.

Gardiner scratched: A case of conflicted identity?

All reports indicate Jake Gardiner is sitting to allow for Paul Ranger’s return to the fold.

Carlyle seems to have his defence compartmentalized in such a way where Mark Fraser is a necessity on the backend as his bruising, stay at home, net-protection presence. The issue for some is that Fraser just hasn’t been right since returning from injury. He’s looked slower and shaky on the puck.

Carlyle appears to have more patience for Fraser than he does Gardiner; he feels the team needs what he brings when he’s playing well, and that Fraser deserves the time to sort it out. No doubt, Fraser was a warrior for the Leafs last season.

Carlyle, meanwhile, saw Gardiner playing firewagon hockey, turning the puck over, getting caught up the ice and making erratic decision with the puck on Monday night and has decided that he needs to watch a game from the press box. Carlyle grows tired on Gardiner quick when he feels he’s lacking discipline in his decision making.

I don’t personally believe the Leafs are in a better position to win tonight having made this decision, but here we are. Gardiner was effective and playing big minutes for this team in the first quarter of the season, but Carlyle was quick to scratch him after a performance in which all Leaf D were torched and no Leaf player, to a man, played well.

It makes one wonder about the conflicted identity theme that has been getting some play in the media as of late. The defence with Rielly and Gardiner on it, with Fraser out and Ranger in (Ranger is pretty active on the pinch, even when he shouldn’t be), combined with the make up of this team’s forwards suggests the very essence of a run and gun team. The aforementioned combination seems to be the best assembly of skill the Leafs can ice on defence, but Carlyle’s vision has never been that of a run and gun outfit, even though the team has often played like one. Last season, the Leafs were a unique blend of a team that thrived off the rush while physically punishing the opposition.

It’s not altogether surprising that Carlyle likes to have a “Mark Fraser type” on his blueline, but Fraser hasn’t been doing his own job effectively. It doesn’t seem fair to Gardiner to pick him out of the pile of poor performances on Monday night.

Tonight’s Lineup

In any event, the pairings look like they’ll stack up as:

Phaneuf – Gunarsson
Rielly – Ranger
Fraser – Franson

Let’s hope the new pairings can sort it out quickly as the Crosby/Kunitz Malkin/Neal double-headed monster is as tough of a matchup as there is in the League.

Up front, Peter Holland will reenter the lineup with Joffrey Lupul on the shelf for at least two weeks. Preparing for the likes of Sid, Neal, Kunitz and Malkin, Carlyle’s approach is to insulate Holland with McClement and Kulemin on the third line, based on the practice units.

Jonathan Bernier will start for the Leafs in his first career start against the Penguins. Marc Andre Fleury goes for the Penguins.

Projected Lineup  
Left WingCenterRight Wing
JvRBozakKessel
RaymondKadriClarkson
McClementHollandKulemin
McLarenSmithsonOrr
Left DefenseRight Defense
PhaneufGunnarsson
FraserFranson
RiellyRanger
Gardiner scratched
Goalies
Starter: Bernier
Reimer
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]
  • PEIleafnation

    cant wait to watch paul ranger again LMAO #not

  • lieffan

    Great posts today, Alec.
    With Gardiner in there’s at least some hope we can keep play in the other end vs. Malkin, Sid and co.

  • Leafbites

    Great post, Alec. I have a feeling that Bernier will need to stand on his head if the Leafs want to scrape a point in Pitt tonight. That Pens dressing room are salivating when they look at that D line up posted on their whiteboard.

  • Burtonboy

    Blysma has last change .  Good chance he has Crosby out against Franson and Fraser every opportunity he has. Unless Ranger and Rielly really play well and move up it looks like the Franson /Fraser combo are going see a steady diet of Malkin and Crosby tonight

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Thanks to everyone who bought a T or a hoodie. We hit 300 sold on the last day of the sale. Still a few hours left. http://teespring.com/mlhs

  • Bernier_The_Boats

    I’d like to see McWilliam get a call up.  Ranger can suck it!

  • Bernier_The_Boats

    I think we will light Fleury up like a christmas tree tonight….

  • Burtonboy

    Bernier_The_Boats There are actually 3 maybe 4 guys playing better on the Marlies right now over McWilliam . Liles ,Percy,Grandberg and Brennan

  • Burtonboy

    Murph2417 Burtonboy Bernier_The_Boats If they can’t t get the present group straightened out maybe we see that. Only question mark  is would Carlyle want him on the team.

  • Jay_Berg

    Anyone else starting to get a really bad feeling? Something just feels really off with this team….

  • Jay31

    Nice preview Alec. I think you’re right about Randy having compartmentalized the d-corps, which is a big problem if it leads to Fraser being on the 2nd pairing.. Really not looking forward to seeing Fraser-Franson in that capacity, especially since imo Franson has probably been our worst d-man this season

  • DJGLENN22

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151752897541006&set=a.10150274478951006.330140.7331091005&type=1

  • DJGLENN22

    real big hit

  • Alec Brownscombe

    DJGLENN22 That hit was unbelievable. Head over heels in a standstill position.

  • .JVR.

    Shift_Disturber1 
    Beat me to it, was just about to post that.
    So, which of our higher end prospects still need to be locked up?

  • .JVR.

    TheCanucksnaphook 
    I don’t care if he is playing for free, if he can’t keep up with the big boys, he shouldn’t be playing!!

  • Alec Brownscombe

    TheCanucksnaphook Pro athletes get criticized by fans, world goes round.

  • Jay31

    .JVR. Shift_Disturber1 Verhaege?

  • .JVR.

    Jay31
    Not too sure, for some reason I think he has been signed.

  • .JVR.

    TheCanucksnaphook
    He’s not awful, I just think there are better defencemen in the organization.
    Why not give Liles or Brennan a shot?

  • Xxxxxnew

    Brown and Finn also signed recently.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    TheCanucksnaphook Find it hard to cheer for him even on Team Canada.

  • .JVR.

    TheCanucksnaphook
    Sure we do, Smith is the Captain of the Marlies and is sitting in the Press Box for the Leafs, so why not send him down where he can Captain his team?
    Come to think of it, teams are allowed to have 23 players on their active roster and with Lupul hitting the IR, the Leafs should have an open roster spot now.

  • Xxxxxnew

    I really think Kessel is playing hurt. You see him after a shift on the bench, even if he had a great shift, he has a different look on his face. Like someone who feels like crap. There was a rumour his wrist was giving him trouble.

  • .JVR.

    MikeGartner11 
    Maybe one of them should drop the gloves with Crosby and see what the league thinks of that.
    They didn’t seem to mind when Scott went after Kessel.

  • Burtonboy

    MikeGartner11 Murph2417 Who is Pitts tough guy with Tanner Glass on the sidelines ?

  • .JVR.

    Xxxxxnew 
    Maybe he’s still getting over the flu?

  • .JVR.

    Burtonboy
    Deryk Engelland

  • Xxxxxnew

    I was actually noticing it a bit before that. Hard to say when because I’m out west and I don’t get to see all the games.

  • Burtonboy

    .JVR. Burtonboy So we dress two tough guys on a 4th line that will likely play less then 5 mins just because of Engelland ?

  • Xxxxxnew

    He’s got that straight right hand to the jaw that surprises a lot of guys.

  • Burtonboy

    Xxxxxnew According to reporters at practice the way he’s shooting the puck he certainly doesn’t have a wrist injury . Absolute bullets

  • .JVR.

    Burtonboy
    Plus Fraser on defence, although I don’t think he’d wanna mess with Engelland.
    I’d much rather see Smith or somebody from the Marlies (Ashton or Broll) in the lineup instead of one of the Blue Bombers. 
    I’d probably go with something like this for tonight:
    JVR   –   Holland   –   Kessel
    Leivo   –   Kadri    –   Clarkson
    Raymond   –   Bozak   –   Kulemin
    Broll/Ashton/Smith   –   McClement   –   Orr/McLaren

  • wendelsway1

    Xxxxxnew Kessel doesn’t take games off so pretty sure he’s played hurt several times.  There is a difference between hurt and injured and in the course of a season, plenty of players play hurt…contact sport with a long, demanding season.  Not too concerned,…Phil’s a beauty of a player, in my books…Love him.  :)

  • wiski

    Burtonboy Xxxxxnew Could be hemorrhoids the way he keeps his legs apart. 😉

  • Burtonboy

    .JVR. Burtonboy I’ve said a million times . I’m ok with Orr but I don’t see the need for both. At least not on most nights .

  • .JVR.

    Burtonboy 
    Or leave Leivo with the Marlies, move Raymond up to the 2nd line, McClement up to LW on the third line and let Smithson in to center the 4th line.

  • Burtonboy

    wiski Burtonboy Xxxxxnew Good grief . You come up with this when its close to supper time

  • Xxxxxnew

    He hasn’t had a night off since his reconstructive shoulder surgery the summer before Leafs got him, not counting the first few games of the season he missed with us because of it.

  • Alec Brownscombe

    https://twitter.com/67sound/status/405806462876012544

    Just sent a shiver down my spine thinking back to those times.
    Come on Randy and team, shape up.

  • theacs1966

    .JVR. Jay31 Nope, not him or Herzog or Neilson.

  • Burtonboy

    Alec Brownscombe LOL why am I not surprised he would say that

  • Xxxxxnew

    That’s the classic Bobby Orr-Gilbert Perreault stance!

  • wendelsway1

    wiski Burtonboy Xxxxxnew You got the vodka out early today, wiski?…..lol

  • Alec Brownscombe

    Burtonboy Alec Brownscombe The actual losing would be bad enough. Knowing all of these guys are revelling in it would add a little more sting.

  • wiski

    wendelsway1 wiski Burtonboy Xxxxxnew Just cracked my first beer after fighting the wet snow for a couple hours. ahhhhhh 😉

  • Xxxxxnew

    Maybe it is a long bout with the flu. Besides the crappy feeling it saps your electrolytes when you lose all that water weight during the game.

  • theacs1966

    TheCanucksnaphook Alec Brownscombe I wouldn’t be critical if he could complete a four foot pass to the right team.  He’s good at defending but can’t make a pass to save his life.

  • Burtonboy

    Alec Brownscombe Burtonboy Yep . BTW good shot at O’Neil today . Clammed him up after they read that tweet

  • .JVR.

    Xxxxxnew 
    Could be especially draining if he was put on antibiotics.