It Begins.


Be sure to check out Nikhil’s post-game thoughts from last night.

Tuesday night, September 21st, about 6:40 p.m.  I am dancing – yes, dancing, provided you can call a kind of frenetic spasticism punctuated with finger snaps and some twirling hands “dancing” – to no music in my kitchen as I cook our pasta for dinner.  I am in a rush, and I am excited, because after a long summer of legal wrangling over the Kovalchuk contract, eternal speculation about Tomas Kaberle’s status and apparently endless MSM vs. blogger hissy fits, the puck is finally dropping on the preseason.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that the preseason sucks.  I know it’s not reflective or in any way predictive of how the team will do during the regular season – I’ve been a hockey fan long enough to know that, and last year’s brilliant exhibition campaign is still fresh in my memory.  Almost as fresh as the oh-and-eight start that followed it, once the games counted.

For a hockey fan, hope springs eternal in the fall.  Summer ends today, my team is back on the ice and I’m absolutely stoked to get my first look at Versteeg in a Leafs‘ uni;  to scope out Jerry D’Amigo and Jussi Rynnas;  to leave the failure of last year behind.  I am ready to love this team again.

Forty minutes later, midway through the first period and we’re down two to nothing.  I spend about ten minutes discussing exactly WHO among the Leafs was responsible for blowing the defensive assignment that led to the first Senators goal with Chemmy and Garrett Baumann on Twitter.  It is not necessary to engage in such a debate concerning the second Leafs goal, as Dion Phaneuf whiffs on a hip check like Vesa Toskala’s glove hand on a 195 foot backhand.  The Leafs are drawing penalties early and often, and I am concerned that the Senators’ forwards may cause themselves permanent nerve damage through the sheer repetition involved in the number of shots they are directing at the Leaf net.

“It’s early,” I tell myself.  On Twitter, there is a discussion about whether the fans in attendance at the Air Canada Centre are booing Senators goals, or the Leafs.  Sigh.

Forty minutes further down the road, the second period has begun.  Some of the Leafs forwards – Kadri, Versteeg and Armstrong in particular – are playing with the urgency of a man being pursued by a bear.  The roles are reversed, now:  there are so many Senators in the penalty box, I mistake the sin bin for a luxury Mexican resort during a critical Parliamentary vote.  Twice, the Leafs are given a 5-on-3 opportunity that seems to last long enough for Jason Allison to skate two full lengths of the ice.  Still, we do not score.

Near the end of the period, injury is reunited with its close companion “insult” and the Senators add a goal on a deeply concerning play.  The Leafs’ defensive effort coverage approach on this play is eerily reminiscent of a bunch of fourth graders playing baseball:  five guys in left field, picking dandelions.

Another forty minutes further on.  The second period is over, and so so is my carefree enthusiasm.  Less than two hours have gone by, and I’ve gone from giddy anticipation for the game to wondering whether I should just turn the TV over to my wife, who wants to watch the season premiere of “Being Erica.”

Spouse is napping on the couch, though, so I settle in for the third period.  It’s twenty after nine right now, and I’ve just watched Ottawa add two weak goals.  On the first, Jussi Rynnas is caught looking behind the net and Chris Neil, of all people, pulls a quick reverse and tucks one in the open side.  Minutes later, Phaneuf is caught pinching and an unscreened forty foot Chris Kelly snapshot beats Rynnas on the short side, blocker high.

It takes a lot to love this team sometimes.

Can I issue a desperate plea for the Leafs to cancel the remaining eight ( ! ) scheduled preseason games and just practice?  This team needs work.  It does not need a series of meaningless tilts in which borderline players drop the gloves against other marginal players in an effort to claim a spot with truculence in place of excellence.  This team’s futility on the penalty kill is rivalled only by its ineptitude on the powerplay.  Bereft of any apparent will to adhere to any particular defensive system and accursed by subpar goaltending since the lockout, the Leafs show little sign on this evening that they will be anything but overmatched and underskilled.   To have any hope this year, this squad will need to maximize with excellent team chemistry the modest physical gifts with which it is blessed.  That chemistry can come only from time spent practicing, bonding and working together as the squad that will pull on the rope;  the crew that is assigned to complete the task.

I’m not on the window ledge because of a poor performance in the first preseason game.   I am, however, already out of giddy optimism.  This team needs to show something, and soon.

Love to hear your thoughts too.  Drop ’em in the comments, or shoot me an @reply on Twitter, my username is “@warwalker”.  Don’t ask, long story.