Title Clarification: It’s a shot at Glen Healey who last week excused the Oilers’ giveaways on account of their youthful makeup while criticizing the Leafs for the same thing. The Leafs are in fact younger than the Oilers.
Being a Toronto Maple Leaf is an honour for all of those who wear the blue and white, but with that honour comes an incredible amount of pressure from a strong and passionate fan base. To provide an example of the difficult environment in which these players are surrounded, one should look no further than the recent roller coaster this team and its fanbase has been riding.
In just one calendar week, a wide array of emotions has engulfed this young squad. A poor performance at home against the Edmonton Oilers saw the fans voice their displeasure as they booed their beloved team off the ice several times. In what seemed to be the doom and gloom of the season, a bounce back game over the Boston Bruins along with an exciting comeback victory in Washington against the Capitals pulled Leafs Nation back on board. The upward trend would not last long. A one-sided loss in Pittsburgh to the Penguins led to a return home to a once again hostile Toronto faithful for a tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers. Although the boos from the home crowd resurfaced early and often throughout the loss, it was the waffles thrown towards players that left the mark. A 3-1 decison over longtime rival Montreal Canadiens allowed the sun to rise again in Leaf Land and ended what would be considered a surreal week in any athletes life.
When times are trying, teams look to a road trip as an often embraced venture. The trip this week to Western Canada is an exciting and welcomed event for the Leafs each year, and with a flurry of players haling from the area it seems like more of a homecoming. With the first stop on that trip being in Edmonton against the Oilers, Captain Dion Phaneuf, an Edmonton native touched on his return home to play in front of family and friends, prior to the game.
“I really look forward to playing in Edmonton in front of my family and friends. Its (Rexall Place) always a special building to play in.”
The usual and large group of Leaf fans that follow this team out West were showing their support and lifted both benches early, most notably the Leafs who managed to grab the games first goal. Dion Phaneuf brought a little hometown luck and blasted a point shot, his first of the year, past Nikolai Khabibulin. The Oilers were able to use their speed to create some havoc and get the equalizer. A strong forecheck by Taylor Hall lead to a nifty pass from Sam Gagner who found Jordan Eberle. Eberle calmly lifted the puck over J.S. Gigeure for the tying goal. The remainder of an exciting first period saw both teams exchange chances, but a few huge saves by J.S. Gigeure and Nikolai Khabibulin kept the score even heading into the first intermission.
The second period picked up with the same quick pace visible in the first. The Oilers began to find themselves in penalty trouble, which would eventually prove costly. Zach Stortini took liberties on Mikhail Grabovski with a knee, resulting in a Leaf power play. Struggling of late, the Leafs power play would find its way. Mikhail Grabovski put a nice behind the back pass on the stick of Clarke MacArthur. As Grabovski headed towards the net, MacArthur found him with a slap pass, giving the Leafs a 2-1 lead. A battle between Colton Orr and a bloody Zach Stortini was unable to lift the Oilers, and they continued to take penalties, allowing the Leafs to control the bulk of the second period. The Leafs continued to press, and the Oilers were left scrambling. A point shot from Luke Schenn would be tipped by Kris Versteeg and pin-balled its way into the net, giving the Leafs the 3-1 lead into the second intermission.
The third and final frame was true to form as both teams used their speed to create chances. Nazem Kadri added to a handful of chances on the night, only to have his first career goal elude him once again. After a few Oiler chances, their penalty trouble came back to haunt them. Magnus Pajairivi took an unnecessary holding penalty and the Leaf power play would continue to pick up steam. Dion Phaneuf would lead a perfect passing play to Tyler Bozak. Bozak found Kris Versteeg, who set up Phil Kessel for his 12th of the year and the 4-1 lead.
Tonight’s game was a perfect example of how this team can play when things are running smooth. When able to score the first goal and take the edge off, a confidence visibly comes over the players and their ability to move the puck becomes a factor. A strong effort in goal from J.S. Giguere and solid performances from the special teams played a significant role in the victory, and provides them with the blueprint for how they need to play in order to be successful.
The simple yet necessary traits of every good hockey team play large roles and tonight the Leafs used those to their advantage. They relied on their defensive play to create chances the other way, much to the delight of Head Coach Ron Wilson.
“We were trading chances with them in the first period. We thought if we played better defensively and not turn as many pucks over, we’d be able to get a lot of scoring opportunities and we did. We drew a lot of penalties and I thought that in the second and third period we played as good as we have in a long time.”
It is certain the Leaf players will look to this game as a building block for the remainder of this Western Canada trip. Dion Phaneuf will head into his first game against his former Calgary Flames team with a little weight off his shoulders. A warm welcome he may not receive, but it is the two points he is more concerned about.
“I don’t know why their would be any negatives. It wasn’t my choice to leave. I had a lot of great times there and made a lot of great friends. I played a lot of hockey in that building. But its not me going to Calgary, its about our team going to win a hockey game.”
Although the tension will be there for his teammates as they look for a big win for their captain, the Leafs can use tonight’s game for inspiration. Strong play on all zones of the ice and the powerplay led to this victory and that same play will go a long way on Thursday.