A game which had a lot of positives certainly didnâ€™t look that way at first. It wasnâ€™t the start we wanted when Keith Aulie got handcuffed by a bad pass from Dion Phaneuf. After getting caught in his feet, Aulie had to chip it out and we had no puck support, leading to a giveaway and a Buffalo lead.
After that incident, things started picking up with the Leafs playing the best period of the preseason so far.
I’ve noticed this is becoming a powerplay trend – actually it has been this way for a long time now â€“ Kessel is holding on to the puck for too long. He spends too much time looking for a lane. Now, I know he should look for a lane to shoot because that is his strength, but you saw Ovechkin playing off the wall in recent seasons as well (not the last one) and he mostly set up for one timers, opting not handle the puck as much/use his wrist shot or snapshot as much. Actually, that was the most effective PP scheme Washington has had in recent years. Kessel has a supreme wrist shot/snapshot but it takes time to set it up; you have to receive the puck and get clear possesion to get that shot off, and because of that he doesn’t find the lane in the end on too many occasions. When he doesn’t and he finally passes out to the point, the top PK defenseman is already set up. This slows down the puck cycle in a big way.
Also, when Ovechin used his wrister or snapshot, he mostly played in the middle because the half boards most often don’t give you the angle or the time – even if you shoot with the opposite hand (because it’s easier to defend) – to get that type of shot off. The middle of the ice does.
Regardless of the PP efficiency, Phil Kessel played with some fire tonight. Gotta love it relatively early in preseason. Liles and him put tons of pressure on the Buffalo defense on the lone Leafs’ goal as Phil finally stuffed the puck past Ryan Miller. Liles showed off the ability to jump into the play and make a difference in those odd man situations. Connolly and Kessel clicked much better, with Lupul offering some jam. Grabo, Mac and Kuli looked like their old selves again. It takes very little to get their chemistry back.
What thrilled me most is large periods in our play where the Leafs created waves of continued pressure on the Sabres. The team created a lot of scoring chances and created traffic in front of Miller on a regular basis. That gains merit if you consider the tempo of the game and the fact both teams iced, for the most part, NHL worthy teams. The second period was without a doubt our best period of the preseason so far.
I know everyone keeps saying it, but Nazem Kadri seems like a much improved player. Like an NHL player that can make an impact. Heâ€™s much faster, stronger, and his skating balance is better, but most importantly he plays the game with much more confidence. Coupled with better decision making, that makes him a much more dangerous player.
Jake Gardiner and Gunnarsson were our top defensemen tonight, and Cody Franson was also solid. As is fast becoming tradition, Gardiner’s speed created problems for the Buffalo defense, but what impressed me most was his patience with the puck and the decision making. I know we’re extremely deep at D, and that creating room for Gardiner would present a major problem, but how in the hell do you keep him out if he continues playing like that? Especially with Ron Wilson being under the kind of pressure he will surely be under. Oh and that fake & pass for Frattinâ€™s chance was a thing of beauty. Gunnarsson is playing with the kind of composure that made him stick with this club in the first place.
Iâ€™d just like to touch up on the head contact on Phaneufâ€™s hit in the third. That interference/hit to the head penalty is the perfect example of why some perfectly legal hits from a season ago will sometimes be adjudged as illegal with the application of the new rules. Iâ€™d have to watch it again, but it was body on body contact and the head contact was purely accidental. Absolutely no intent, but, rules are rules and if you apply current rules to the Phaneuf hit, itâ€™s a penalty.
James Reimer looked in midseason form already, making 31 saves on 33 shots, some of which were quite excellent. Unfortunately, he still couldnâ€™t outplay Ryan Miller who had another spectacular night against the Leafs.
Despite the loss, there is more than a fair share of positives to take away from tonight. The team surely deserved more for their pressure and resolve, even if it was just a preseason game. There was a ton of fire from the young guns tonight, with Gardiner and Kadri looking particularly impressive. Our two top lines played good hockey, showing more chemistry than in previous preseason games. The PK looked good while the PP still needs some work.