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Randy Carlyle

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With their backs against the wall, the Maple Leafs will look to force a seventh game by winning at home for the first time this postseason.

Toronto will undoubtedly play with the desperation they showed for most of Friday night. The difference tonight will be that the Bruins are also starting to feel the pressure.  Boston will be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the Leafs and James Reimer in an effort to close out this series.  With the continuing struggles of Seguin and Marchand, the offensive load will likely be carried by the Krejci line.

At the other end of the ice, two feisty Leafs centers in Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri earnestly want to make a contribution of their own to their team’s success.  With the way Grabovski has elevated his game in these playoffs, it should only be a matter of time before the Belorussian finds his name on the scoresheet.

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The unexpected catharsis of Saturday’s night win in Boston has provided Leafs Nation with a much needed release of some tension and anger after game one’s eye-opening reality check.

The Leafs are now heading into Toronto tied with Boston after stealing home-ice advantage.  For the first time since 2004, our Toronto Maple Leafs will host a playoff game in the Air Canada Centre!

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It’s official. The Leafs will face the Bruins in round one.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for the Habs on Tuesday. As much as the last four games against the Habs have been a mixed bag, the Leafs have been able to play their game and play to their strengths against Montreal. The Leafs have played the Bs much more competitively this season, but the Bruins have still been effective at negating the Leafs speed and skill up front, slowing them down and forcing them to grind for every goal. While the Bruins have backed into the playoffs, their forecheck is still top notch. For a Leafs team that struggles to diffuse a forecheck with efficient breakouts, that’s a scary prospect. The Bruins have experience, the core of a past Stanley Cup winner and play a tough playoff brand of hockey.

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In case you missed it, here’s mORRganRielly‘s excellent Game in 22.

What a heart-breaker that was.

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Post game Stats: Kessel now has his 14th of the season and with a hot streak incoming, should be able to hit 30 goals with 8 games left on the schedule. The Leafs’ penalty kill continues its excellence with a man down as they killed off three of the Rangers’ 20th ranked power-plays. And what a game it was after a first period that put my ADHD afflicted dog to sleep.

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The Leafs are all but set to make the playoffs for the first time in nine years, yet there is an inordinate amount of vitriol being directed at Toronto’s head coach Randy Carlyle, for some reason.

Considering pretty well everyone predicted the Leafs not to make the playoffs, it’s pretty funny to see the coach leading a surprising playoff appearance – and a team that’s currently fifth in the East and 7th in the League – get chastised

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The Leafs are back at it after a welcomed four day lull in the schedule. The deadline hurdle has been cleared for the players, with no significant additions or subtractions to the roster. The group that got the Leafs into this position is going to have a chance to finish what they started by clinching the Leafs’ first playoff berth in eight years. It’s tough to imagine James Reimer is viewing this as a vote of confidence, though, after his GM publicly admitted that Miikka Kiprusoff was of much interest to the team and that the two sides discussed the possibility of an extension.

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Jake Gardiner

Thanks to @mORRganRielly for the following submission:

Jake Gardiner sucks.

No, just kidding.  He’s pretty awesome.  He is an immensely gifted, up-and-coming defenseman, but he does have a little bit of learnin’ to do.  In light of his recent scratch, I wanted to take an opportunity to delve more into his role with the Leafs and the relationship of his play against the overall performance of the Leafs defense over the course of the season.  To that end, I will be looking strictly at even-strength play rather than specialized roles like the power-play or the penalty-kill.

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Toronto overcame a slow start on the second night of a back-to-back set to close out the league-worst Florida Panthers at home.  The game featured the return of Joffrey Lupul to the Kessel line, simultaneously heralding the revival of said line as contributing members of the team.

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Toronto Maple Leafs vs Boston Bruins

Toronto Maple Leafs (17-12-3) at Boston Bruins (17-9-6)
Last 10: Toronto 4-3-1; Boston 5-2-3

The Leafs did it. They beat the Boston Bruins. As a reward, they get to play them again two nights later.

It took a good mix of a lot of things going right to pull it off their first win over the Bruins in nearly two calendar years. To the Leafs’ credit, they finished their hits, got involved in the game early, caused some turnovers and grabbed an early lead. They were patient and the amount of respect they had for their opponent, and their hunger to finally beat them, was apparent in the extra effort the likes of Kadri and Kessel among others were putting in defensively.

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Tonight, Randy Carlyle will stick with James Reimer seemingly in an effort to give Reimer a chance at staking a number one’s claim to the crease. Carlyle has stated his preference to have one emerge over the other rather than a 1A/1B rodeo situation, and allowing Reimer to try to play his way through a few shaky goals on Thursday seems to be the approach. Although it could be a simple case of Reimer giving the Bruins a stiffer test than Scrivens in the teams’ two meetings so far this season (at least according to the scoresheet; 1-0 loss to Boston in early February with Reimer in net).

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With the boats now foolishly burnt and the season 31 games old, the Toronto Maple Leafs sure look like they’re reeling into form.  Since starting the season with a record of 15 – 9 – 0, the Leafs have gone 1 – 3 – 3 in the past seven games, collecting only five points in the standings and now sitting precariously in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

Through the good graces of the Hockey gods and the incompetence of their direct competition (the Jets, Hurricanes and Rangers all lost in regulation last night), the Leafs are just barely keeping their head above water.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs

After a good comeback/confidence-building game against the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Toronto Maple Leafs  have perhaps created more questions than answers. The Penalty Kill keeps improving (now 6th in the East) and, even as a “work in progress” defensively, they can at least score in bunches to get themselves out of trouble. They are starting to show the signs that the elite teams in the league show on a regular basis. While they are probably a couple of roster moves away from being mentioned in the same breath as a Pittsburgh Penguins, the rebuild is starting to see the light of day, it appears.

It was one of the first times this season that Nazem Kadri was paired against another top offensive line, but he did it the whole game. We’re not talking about any ol’ line, but the best goal scorer in the league and his better-than-ppg-avg wingman. He beat Steven Stamkos on draws, engaged in the game physically and on the score board. It was yet another coming out party for Kadri and what a nice live viewing for the 30 GMs that were in town to discuss various NHL issues. Most were at the Air Canada Centre taking in the game against Tampa.

Up until this game, Randy Carlyle has been riding the Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and—at least most of the time—Jay McClement line hard against the other team’s top lines. Too much so? That’s hard to say. Kulemin has had many opportunities that he simply is not bearing down on; he was on pace for 10 goals this season before his 2-goal effort against Tampa Bay on a line with Kadri.

Grabovski was paired with MacArthur and Frattin against Tampa and was still looking a little lost. As Grabo goes, those two go. And something that was enlightening in Randy Carlyle’s post-game  interview:

The one thing that we are going to do is we’re going to test Kadri against the best players,” Carlyle said after his team snapped a five-game winless skid with a 4-2 victory over the Lightning. “He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him.”

“I think this is just another step in the maturing of a young hockey player,” Carlyle said of his decision to increase Kadri’s responsibility. “And I’m sure there’s going to be some speed bumps along the way and he’s going to turn the puck over when we don’t want him to … [but] the good things outweigh the poor judgments that he’s making by 10 to 2.”

Could #FreeGardiner and #FreeGrabo happen in the same week? It looks like Kadri wants to run with the top match-ups and wants the ice-time that is associated with it. Time will tell if he is up to the task, but this appears to be equal parts a praising and a scolding. Praise for Kadri and his excellent play to date, and a scolding for Grabovski who appeared, to me at least, that he didn’t like all his defensive zone face-offs and having to skate 200ft for his goals. It could very well be a case of lost in translation, but changing brands of sticks isn’t going to help Grabovski at this stage. He’s looking lost and it’s affecting his confidence badly.

Also troubling—to my eye—is how ineffective the Phil Kessel line is. Clearly, Phil Kessel’s game is all about speed, attacking off the rush, his release and his quick hands around the net. This may be oddly timed because Kessel is on a 5 game point streak, a testament to his ability to produce regardless of his circumstances. Kessel tallied a single assist last night giving him four goals and four assists in that span. He sits second on the team in scoring with 28 points but shifts go by where I hardly notice Bozak, him or JVR. They are clicking to a certain degree, but they are not dominating the way that Kessel and Lupul were last year with the absence of a legit number one centerman.

James van Riemsdyk, while a great addition to this team and yet another lop-sided trade from Brian Burke, is reaping the benefits from playing with Kessel, it’s just that Kessel is not reaping the benefits of playing with JVR as much as he could from a center and a winger who could play the game as his pace. MacArthur, Frattin and now Lupul have all “found chemistry” with Kadri. I think it’s more of a case of Kadri is just making everyone around him that much better. Lupul can convert those chances better than the others can. JVR would, more than likely, benefit from a good centerman more than Lupul, who has shown in the past that he can play just fine without one—no offence, Bozak.

Tyler Bozak, it seems more than ever before in his career, is playing way above his head on the 1st line. It’s dragging his, Kessel’s and JVR’s play down. He’s constantly a step behind  and is not able to make the plays that the other two are able to.  If you were to change JVR and Lupul, that would be magnified.

Grabovski, if we can believe what Carlyle says about Kadri, will be freed up to experiment up and down the lineup.  The only logical reason that Kessel and Grabovski have never played extended periods of time together is because, it can be assumed, they both love to have the puck on their stick and both love to carry the puck through the neutral zone—they play a similar game, not a complementary game.

The caveat to that, I would contest, is that elite players will figure out how to get the puck to each other. Grabovski can skate, stick handle, navigate through traffic and shoot at absolutely top speed–the same as Kessel can. They’re good enough to play on the PP together, but that is a different discipline where it’s rarely ever off the rush and is instead done with puck movement inside the offensive blueline. Both players’ strength is scoring off the rush and, if you are going to keep Kessel on this team long term and get the most out of him in his prime years (his peak year is historically this year—his 25th year), you need a center that is as fast as him and not lagging behind the play like Bozak constantly is. I don’t think a “Big 1C” would work with Kessel’s game very well.  If Kessel, Grabovski and Lupul could play their game at top-speed like they can—and execute—it would be a devastating line that would be able to handle some defensive assignments that Kessel/Bozak/JVR just aren’t able to do right now.

Carlyle is not afraid to put the blender away and try players together for more than 1 shift together. As much as arm coaches scream for change, it’s refreshing to have a coach that will play a line together for a full game, and even for bunches of games before he puts the blender to it. The one thing that has never happened with Kessel and Grabovski is them being played together, on the same line, for a week of games (or more).

Tyler Bozak is a solid hockey player trying to keep up with an elite goal scorer and an elite skater in Kessel and he just can’t keep up with the speed at which the plays are made.  Bozak playing with MacArthur and Frattin on the third line would be a much better fit—soft starts, good chances at dominating the faceoff dot—and starting each play with all-important possession—and playing with players of his calibre and his foot speed. It will improve his output tremendously if he can slow the game down to his speed and play with two good, solid wingers in MacArthur and Frattin.

Under Ron Wilson, this experiment would likely have never happened; he had all the opportunity in the world to try it. Under Randy Carlyle, if he does experiment with them on the same line, you would hope that, in keeping with tradition, he’ll give them the appropriate allotment of games together to either sink or swim with this idea for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

As far as statistical data, Left Wing Lock is said to be wildly inaccurate, but it’s all we have.

  1. 2010/2011 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
  2. 2011/2012 Even-Strength Forward Combinations
  3. 2012/2013 Even-Strength Forward Combinations

There’s enough data there to say that Grabovski and Kessel have hardly played together at even-strength.

Toronto’s 1st line centerman might have been under their nose all along.

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The Tampa Bay Lighting (13-15-1) are in town to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs (15-12-2).

The other day, Randy Carlyle called the Leafs’ inability to initiate clean breakouts and avoid getting hemmed in their own zone “the big mystery with this group.” He’s taken steps toward resolving it with the addition of both John Michael-Liles and Jake Gardiner to the lineup, who will apparently play together on a pairing tonight as the defence takes a shape much closer to what many armchair coaches were penciling together before the season. It will be interesting to see how the pair affect the breakout and overall puck movement off the backend. Gardiner will also look to inject some life into a powerplay that’s 0 for its last 19.

Speaking of interesting quotes from the other day, Dave Nonis was asked if the Leafs were in the midst of a downfall akin to last season, with his team currently on a 0-3-2 skid. Nonis said, “The one difference I would draw – I just went over the last 5 games – I think there was only one game where we weren’t happy with the performance and the effort. Last year, when things were going poorly, were were unhappy with the effort a lot more than that.” So let’s hope that translates into an upturn in results before the Leafs play their way out of the playoff picture.

The Leafs were hurt by an off outing from Ben Scrivens in their last meeting with the Lightning. Facing their first non-playoff opponent in five games, this is also a good time to get their first win in five games. James Reimer gets the start.

Liles and Gardiner form the second pairing, with Kostka remaining in the press box for the third straight game. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson will be tasked with the Stamkos and St. Louis head-to-head. Vinny Lecavalier is out with a broken foot.

[table “104” not found /]

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James Mirtle wrote the other day about how the first Pascal Dupuis goal in the crushing 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh last Thursday was the back breaker when it came to Korbinian Holzer’s time with the Leafs this season. Holzer challenged Chris Kunitz on the boards and Kunitz came out cleanly with the puck to start the play that led to the goal. I remember thinking at the time, “Holzer struggles with his outlet pass, he struggles positionally, what are we doing here if Holzer can’t even win a battle on the boards?”

Unfortunately for Holzer that was just one of many recent goals against he’s had a hand in. That said, despite the demotion, I’m not going to write off Holzer as a Leaf asset. I think he could be what Mark Fraser is now if he learns from this experience, gets some confidence back in the AHL (presumably will still be down there for their playoff run), and gets his next crack in a more manageable situation.

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One of the more interesting, borderline meaningless stats associated with the Maple Leafs at the moment is their league-leading hit count despite the subtraction of Luke Schenn’s ~270 “hits” (not that Schenn wasn’t physical, but pity the ACC stat recorder who decided his patented three-step push counted as one). Through 16 games in 2013, the Leafs lead the league, ahead of the Flyers and Rangers, with 454 hits.

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Randy Carlyle has not been with the Leafs for long, but he’s beginning to put his stamp on this team.

Hired on March 2nd 2012, the former Ducks bench boss inherited a team on the decline and wound up finishing with a 6-9-3 record to close out the season in his first 18 games as the Leafs head coach. Questions and attention were given to things such as whether or not Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, could turn around Luke Schenn’s game, how he was using Connolly-Steckel-Crabb as a shutdown line, whether he and Joffrey Lupul could get along, if Phil Kessel could produce with him, and the intrigue of the looks he was giving Matt Lombardi and Matt Frattin on the top line.

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Nazem Kadri was interviewed by the Canadian Press on Friday and was asked a number of questions about his hot start.

While praising Randy Carlyle for his open lines of communication with the young Maple Leaf, it was clearly a shot at former Toronto Maple Leaf head coach, Ron Wilson.