The top 6/bottom 6 model may not be perfectly applied with this current Leafs roster, but the Buds looked like a Burke team last night in their 4-3 win over the Penguins; their skilled players played like their skilled players (and then some) and they got a good amount of grit and sand paper out of their plumbers, particularly their fourth line of Steckel, Dupuis and Brown. The Leafs may not fully fit the Burke truculent archetype but, as lukethenuke put it in the post game thread last night, their stars were their stars and their grinders were their grinders. Perhaps most impressive of all is something Mats Sundin points out in his press conference below – the Leafs made a quick skating team in Pittsburgh look kind of slow.
Ron Wilson doesn’t strike me as the type to get the anointing oil out too hastily. Last night, he called Dion Phaneuf the best defenceman in the league by a country mile. Â Remember that players poll that voted Phaneuf the most overrated player in the league? I’d offer his massive legion of detractors a crow each but I’dÂ have PETA up my ass.
That’s 11 points in 10 games, and a +7 overall from the Captain. As for our other best player, I don’t think even the biggest Kessel bashers could disagree with the sentiment (it is reinforced by the stat columns) that he’s playing like the best forward in the league. Your best players have to be your best players, right? How about the best in the league? We’ll enjoy that while it lasts.
Assuming Kessel plays a full season or close to it, a goal per game pace through ten means he needs 30 more goals to hit the 40 plateau and still has 70+ games to do it. Barring injury, 40 seems almost modest, doesn’t it? I may be getting too high after 10 games, but think about how many of his goals this season (and since he arrived in 2009) Kessel made happen on his own. Now, add in the Connolly factor. Through two games I’ve seen Kessel score on a beautiful cross ice feed from Connolly and miss on two others (against New York). Just from my recollection (no research done), this season Kessel has scored six or seven goals off his own rush. Add in some tap ins thanks to Connolly and Kessel’s laughing.
Back to the real world a little bit – By the same token which tells us we can’t expect Kessel and Phaneuf to maintain their out of wordly pace, we can’t expect the Leafs to maintain a .750 point percentage (2nd best in the league). Outside of the Flyers, the Leafs are the only team in the top 12 in the league at the moment to have a goals against per game average above 2.33, and they’re all the way up at 3.20. When the Leafs’ hot hands start regressing to more normal levels of production, we can expect a still-leaky defence to cost us more than it has through ten games thanks to a thus-far high flying offence. The Leafs have only been outscored on a goals-per-game basis by Washington and Philadelphia, but rank 26th in goals against per game.
If the Leafs aren’t going to remain a top five team during 5-on-5 play (with a 1.31 goals for/against differential), there is hope that the powerplay’s seeming turning of the corner could help compensate. It’s now up to 14th in the league at 17.8%. It beat the league’s best penalty kill twice last night, and the puck movement is starting to look a little less stale. The other hope is, with MacArthur looking like he has busted his season-opening slump these past two games, the Leafs offence may not fall too far down the rankings if their one-two punch starts rolling.
The other side of the special teams is not showing the same signs of improvement, however. As Anthony Petrielli put it so well, this seems to be a PK way more focused on faceoff winning and shot blocking (not to dismiss two extremely important facets of a good PK) than it is on holding a good, positional shape. I get the logic of giving away the front of the net to the screening forward rather than creating a mess of bodies out front of the goaltender, but the Kunitz goal resulted after both Grabovski and Komisarek tried to lay out for a shot block on the same side of the ice, virtually abandoning the front of the net. If the strategy is to forget the screening forward while the puck is up high, he still has to be covered when the puck comes down low. In general (not just on the penalty kill), defence around the crease needs to improve; Carl Gunnarsson seems like the only defenceman that’s boxing out and tying up forwards out front properly at the moment.
The Leafs are in Ottawa tonight to polish off a back-to-back weekend set. Jonas Gustavsson is between the pipes again as Reimer gets one more game’s rest. It’s certainly promising to see competent performances from not one but two (could it be?) Leafs goaltenders. Rebounds are never going to be a strong suit for Gus, and there will be weak goals, but the bend-but-not-break quality Gustavsson has shown is a big step up from last season, when a bad goal seemed to be a morale deflator for him; both mentally and physically, Gus looks more in control. He got his first win at home since January last night and won over the crowd in a big way with a couple of huge saves; first, a goal-line desperation glove save before he laid his body (or head) on the line with a confident challenge on James Neale’s breakaway. The roaring applauds had to beÂ a boost to the confidence.
After initially performing like the Senators we all hoped and expected to see this season, Ottawa has looked like the little train that could lately, following up a 1-5 start with a five game winning streak.Â After coming back from a 4-1 deficit last night against the Rangers, the Senators continue to surprise teams with their refusal to quit and improbable comebacks. This winning streak the Sens are riding combined with the Leafs’ near collapse against them in game two should be enough to prevent the Blue and White from underestimating their provincial opponent this evening. As they say, fool me once….
Mats Sundin met with the press after taking in the game and receiving a standing O from the ACC faithful:
Ron Wilson’s post game presser: