You know Toronto is close to their playoff goals when the mainstream media begins to reluctantly acknowledge it’s (slightly) more than just a pipedream of starved Leafs fans. Â Their push will be challenged tonight by the streaking Blackhawks, the epitome of a talented young squad, a team whose recent success Toronto is looking to emulate. Â Both teams will come into this contest hungry for points as the regular season winds down and the playoff picture becomes progressively more crowded. Â With a Buffalo win over Philadelphia earlier today, the Leafs will need these points to keep pace and close ground on the Rangers and Hurricanes. Â While Chicago is fresh off a victory over said Hurricanes, there will be no letup in a team that sits fourth in the Western Conference, considering they are but four points up on the eleventh-placed Minnesota Wild. Â If the Leafs can buck the usual listlessness they display on Saturday nights (4-9-4 on HNIC this season), this will be a good one, as neither team is ready to quit.
The Matchup Stats
If you haven’t already heard, Jonathan Toews is on fire. Â Chicago’s captain has produced 14 points in his last 8 games, many of the “clutch” variety. Â Toews may not have the skill of some of the elite centers in this league, but his heart is unquestionable and he is a two-way force that the Leafs will need to contain. Â Toews is of course augmented by the triple-threat of Kane, Hossa and Sharp. Â While some have been reluctant to anoint Sharp into the highest echelon of NHL players, the 29-year old is slowly shutting them up. Â Used often in all situations, Sharp is particularly effective on the point of the Blackhawks powerplay and is well on track to beat his career-high (36) in goals. Â Sharp generates offense through his hustle and willingness to unleash a quick, accurate shot.
Toronto will be looking to counter these offensive threats with their own arsenal of youthful skill. Â In particular, Phil Kessel has enjoyed his games against Chicago, registering five goals in his last four against the ‘Hawks, including some absolutely dirty snipes. Â Brent Seabrook and co. will also have to contain the Grabovski line, who have emerged from a mini-slump of their own with a point per game or more in their last three contests.
The Leafs will need to be wary of Chicago’s powerplay, sitting at tops in the league while clicking at an almost 25% rate (24.4%). Â Surprisingly, they will be able to prey on one of the five teams that actually sits below them in terms of penalty killing, as the Blackhawks are 26th league-wide in that category. Â There is no sugar-coating the realities of this matchup, as Chicago is a fast, aggressive team that does not give up much defensively. Â That being said, the Leafs can counter with impressive speed of their own.
More importantly, this collection of young players Â is beginning to believe in themselves. Â While certain warriors, such as Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur, have displayed the gusto and determination of playoff believers for a while now, that count is surely increasing. Â With each big goal or comeback, there seems to be one more Leaf with extra jump in their legs. Â One needs to look no farther than the resurgent Dion Phaneuf. Â Phaneuf has steadfastly towed the party line, but he is only now beginning to believe in himself again. Â The Leafs captain is playing with determination and the blossoming realization that he can still be a game-changer.Â Â With a side serving of more James Reimer magic, nothing is beyond the reach of a bunch of kids that just want to win,Â probabilitiesÂ be damned.
Coach Wilson commented on the inherent fearlessness of a young team that simply does not know any better. Â A collection of believers that critics would call “naive”:
Being naive is sometimes for the better when you keep hearing that youâ€™re down too deep to get out. Â Itâ€™s perseverance, learning how to play and attention to detail. It seems to be clicking in, especially for a young group, understanding and prioritizing things that happen during games.
I’ll leave you with some inspirational words from Al Pacino…INCH BY INCH, courtesy of Wiski.