Despite eight new faces in tonight’s season opening lineup against the Montreal Canadiens, many of the recurring themes of futility from last year were evident again in the 4-3 overtime loss. Poor defensive zone coverage, poor penalty killing, questionable moments in the net, and the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory late in the game. Despite the disappointing loss, there were a few bright spots: namely the play of the top line led by Matt Stajan and Viktor Stalberg.
A couple of quick notes and observations:
– Matt Stajan continued to build on his strong breakout season last year with a strong statement game to show that he is for real. Nearly 20 minutes of ice-time, 2 power play goals, and a 63% night in the faceoff circle to earn 2nd star honours. Good job all around.
– Many of the Leafs supposed “defensive” defensemen struggled mightily on this night, making poor decisions, getting their passes intercepted or simply getting caught a split second behind the play. Schenn with 3 giveaways and a -2 rating and Beauchemin with 1 giveaway (fairly generous call by the official scorers because there were more than handful of his passes broken up tonight) and a -2 rating.
– Exelby was a non-factor, not even reaching 10 minutes of ice-time, drawing an unnecessary interference penalty and chipping in a turnover for good measure. His defensive partner Ian White coughed up an astounding 5 turnovers himself.
– Other than maybe Jason Blake, the Leaf forwards did not sufficiently pressure the opposing defenders on the forecheck, nor did they effectively use their speed advantage. With a defense that includes Mara, Gill and Gorges, the Leafs should have been able to force the Canadiens into more clutching and grabbing penalties.
– Ron Wilson is going to have to figure out how to get more out of his checking line forwards. By having 3 guys on the 4th line playing 1:28 (Orr), 2:13 (Rosehill) and 4:23 (Primeau) to combine for a -3 rating, you’re putting a lot of pressure on the other 3 lines. Sending the likes of Mitchell and Wallin out there for 20-plus minutes a night is not going to do you many favors in the way of creating offensive chances.
– The play of Viktor Stalberg was particularly impressive tonight, standing out as the only Leaf forward able to “create” offense out of broken plays. Using his speed, patience, ability to change the pace, he created a number of scoring chances for the top line. He looked very comfortable out there and appears primed to be a key contributor to the team this season.
– The other bright spot is a familiar one: Tomas Kaberle. When Burke spoke about how tough it would be to find a puck-moving defenseman of this ilk, he wasn’t kidding. Kaberle was dynamite tonight, playing 27 and a half minutes, recording a point, 2 blocked shots and most importantly: zero turnovers. His ability to avoid opposing forecheckers and stretch the defense with outlet passes was fully on display in this game.
– Komisarek’s impact every time he stepped on the ice was positive and noticeable. The only problem is, he tried his darndest to stay off of it, accumulating 15 minutes in penalties. Defensively, he was a steadying presence on the penalty kill, effectively squeezing the Habs forwards off the puck along the boards and clearing the zone. On the stats sheet, he contributed a solid 3 hits and led the team with 4 blocked shots.
– Despite all the ragging on the Maple Leaf blueliners, it wasn’t entirely their fault tonight in the least. They were being outmanned by the Canadiens and received very little help if any from the Leafs forwards. Every time the puck was dug out of the corner up along the middle boards, the undersized Canadiens would win the battle against the Leafs forwards to keep the puck in and pin down the defense. Blake, Grabovski, Hagman, Ponikarovsky, were among the some of the names losing the small battles that didn’t show up in tonight’s scoresheet.
– As for Toskala? Hard to completely hang this one around his neck. A beautiful tip by Metropolit and a boatload of shoddy defensive zone coverage all night. However, some of the glaring faults from last season showed up again tonight: open five hole, playing too deep in the net, and being out of position for rebounds. Is he the reason why they lost? Nope. Did he play like a bonafide number one goaltender? Nope.
The Leafs are now in for a big test on Saturday night, heading out to Washington to take on the high flying Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals, who steamrolled the Bruins’ otherwise rock solid defense in a 4-1 victory tonight.