The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in the playoffs.
I hope that felt as good to read as it did to write.
It has been a long nine years since Jeremy Roenick broke Leafs Nations’ hearts in 2004. The excitement that year was nuts. The Leafs traded for Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch for a bunch of guys nobody knew existed and Toronto was buzzing with Stanley Cup hopes. I remember Leetch’s first game against the Islanders; Leetch had three points and the TV broadcast had this stupid iso-camera on Leetch every time he touched the ice. (Ironic side note: the only player traded in the deal who became relevant in the NHL was drafted with the expended second round pick, a player by the name of Michael Sauer – you know, the guy who had his career ended by Phaneuf).
I remember watching that final playoff game with my dad and never have I experienced such an emotional high-to-low swing in such a short span of time than the pure excitement courtesy of the Tucker hit on Kapanen – to this day my favourite hit by a Leaf ever — followed by the pure disappointment when Roenick scored an admitted beauty mere minutes later.
A lot has happened since then. There was a full lockout, another half lockout, Mats Sundin leaving the team and retiring, the end of the Pat Quinn era, a short Paul Maurice era, JFJ getting fired, us watching Richard Peddie mouth words to Cliff Fletcher when it was announced he was taking over, a very short Cliff Fletcher era (thank you for Ryan Hollweg, Jeff Finger and trading Alex Steen for nothing) and the crazy Brian Burke (thanks for the majority of this roster and the Steve Simmons soundbite) era.
During those events we’ve had to endure the Muskoka five (with the cherry on top being Kaberle’s refusal waive his NTC to go to Philly for Jeff Carter and a first), the seemingly endless Kessel debate, the ‘Dubie-check,’ Boyd Deveraux scoring a hat trick in the final game of 2008-09 season which dropped the Leafs two spots (nobody is complaining about Kadri now, but many were for awhile; also Phoenix drafted OEL the pick before Kadri), watching the Sens make the Stanley Cup final, the Bruins winning it and the Habs going on a miracle run on the back of Jaroslav Halak. Meanwhile, the Leafs weren’t even reaping the rewards of finishing poorly because Boston had their first rounders.
If you’ve stuck with the Leafs over the last nine years, there is just no chance that you haven’t been ridiculed about being a fan of the team at some point during it. No matter what other team your friend was a fan of, that team made the playoffs at some point in the nine years the Leafs did not.
But Saturday, Saturday was ours Leafs fans. I’m not going to write it was worth it, because the Leafs still have a long way to go and being in the top 53% in the league isn’t enough to make up for nine years of futility just yet. That said, it was a great feeling on Saturday.
You can say whatever you want about this year, but one thing is for sure – it’s been exciting. The massacre in Montreal along with another beat down in Toronto just for good measure, finally beating Boston, Frattin’s buzzer beater in Buffalo, Lupul’s end-to-end magic against Carolina, Kadri having not one, but two hat tricks, Reimer’s heroics, JVR walking around Schenn, and Kessel lighting up the league once again.
The time for complaining about the Leafs downfalls is the offseason. For now let’s enjoy this, Leafs fans. It’s been a damn long time since we’ve been here and we deserve to soak it all in.
– Reimer has been incredible lately and that can’t be understated, but it should be noted that Scrivens deserves some praise to. When Reimer got hurt, he started eight straight games between February 14th and 27th and he split them, going 4-4-0 with two shutouts in that time. Considering the Leafs are only two points up on the Islanders, and three on Ottawa and the Rangers, that’s proving to be huge.
– Scrivens was hung out to dry against the Capitals last week, but for awhile there he was actually keeping the Leafs in the game. Forget getting a veteran goalie this summer; unless a team is offering a legitimate roster player in exchange for Scrivens, run with these two next year.
– Reimer is making 1.8M next year and Scrivens is making 600K. Though it’s worth noting Scrivens is an UFA after the season while Reimer will be an RFA.
– In the last eight games Kessel has 14 points. Only against Washington did he not record a single point. The pass he made here to Franson before JVR’s goal was ridiculous. Kessel quickly lifted Silfverberg’s stick with ease to get the puck back and then sauced it through two guys like nothing. That’s not a pass many NHLers can get through.
– Remember last year when people didn’t want Jeff Carter to center Kessel because they’d represent two goal scorers playing on the same line? Kessel is now tied for fifth in the league in assists.
– Lupul just can’t make that play against Ottawa at any time, let alone the end of a period. A blind 360 pass in your own zone? How often does that work in the NHL? His body language right after the goal suggests he knew it was ridiculous. Worrying to see that out of a veteran and leader on this team with four games left in the year but you learn and you move on.
– On that note, I have no idea why CBC tried blaming that goal on Grabovski. It was very clear whose fault it was.
– On the other hand, CBC had two very good observations. The first was showing a picture of Reimer hunched over last year compared to this one. What a great thing to note – I’m sure we all remember Reimer literally ducking his head on point shots last year and being caught too deep in his crease. That’s not happening anymore.
– The second graphic was Carl Gunnarsson labouring around the ice. Gunnarsson got beat off the rush by Silfverberg pretty good but was bailed out by Reimer. If he’s healthy there’s no way he gets beat like that.
– When Gunnarsson went out, Ovechkin lit the Leafs up and then Tavares did. The Leafs just didn’t have an answer for those guys and eventually put together a Komarov-McClement-Kulemin line both games. As a result of that, Grabovski got pushed to the fourth line since Bozak always plays with Kessel and Kadri isn’t going anywhere. It’s just a domino of bad things happening when Gunnarsson isn’t playing.
– I’ve wanted to see Gardiner and Phaneuf paired together for quite some time now, and I came away a little disappointed. The Leafs as a team got dominated when they were together and it definitely wasn’t just their fault as everybody played poorly. That context needs to be kept in mind. The only game they really got handled in was the Islanders game, when they didn’t have an answer for the Tavares line at all. The thing that stuck out the most to me though was that they just didn’t really use each other effectively. Gardiner has elite speed and is excellent at moving the puck while Phaneuf is a strong guy with a big shot – they should be able to work well off each other. Instead their highlights over the tiny three game sample were all individual plays such as Gardiner’s nice end-to-end rush against the Devils.
– I’ll note two things though: Gardiner has never really gotten into a groove this year so it’s tough to judge his actual output and play, similar to Franson last year. The second is that it’s much easier to experiment with line combinations and such at the beginning of the year when the games aren’t as tight.
– But, Phaneuf did get burned by pinching against the Islanders for the third goal of the game. Nobody was covering Tavares and Phaneuf decided to pinch in anyways. He should know better than that.
– Then, on Tavares’ second goal of the night, Bozak went off for a line change and that left the center of the ice wide open for Tavares which is why he got such a clean shot in the slot off the rush. Those are two very basic things that could have easily been prevented.
– Kind of forgotten in the loss to the Islanders was how amped up the Leafs were to start the game, which consequently resulted in some penalties. Fraser got a tripping penalty but he really went into the play with aggression and got sloppy, then Franson took a boarding penalty because he was trying to be physical and Komarov went over the line and took an undisciplined penalty. They were that amped up for a game to clinch a playoff spot, so I can only imagine the kind of energy they are going to have for the first playoff game back in Toronto in nine years. They’re going to need to harness that a little better.
– That said, I’d rather have to settle a team down than pump them up. Did the Leafs have a pulse the night the Habs crushed them on Sundin’s banner weekend last year?
– Worth noting that it seems I was wrong about MacArthur being scratched to hide an injury. It’s pretty clear that Carlyle uses the healthy scratch as a method to get guys going, at least for his bottom six players. When it comes to MacArthur and Frattin though, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that it’s worked. There are some players who get pissed off after being scratched and play really well, but not everybody responds like that. After being scratched against Washington, MacArthur played 16:02 against the Islanders and then went right back down to 11:18 against Ottawa. Some players you have to simply let play out of their problems and try to get them rolling by playing them in favourable situations.
– Frattin is being scratched right now so McLaren can play, as Frattin gets reprimanded for not scoring in his last 13. That just doesn’t correlate.
– Most Leafs fans will remember this shootout where Kadri showed off his “nifty mittens.” What most fans didn’t talk about at that time was Boston’s shooters – Seguin, Peverley and Ryder. All three of those players were struggling at that time, so Julien put them out there trying to spark them before the playoffs. Of course, all three went on to play big roles that year as Boston won the Cup. Is that because Julien picked them all in a shootout in which none of them scored? No. But you have to try and get these guys rolling at this time of the season, not scratch them.
– The Phaneuf disallowed goal was a really good example as to how finishing a check can be beneficial. Here’s the video, but basically, if Phaneuf didn’t finish his check, he would have turned and looked for the puck and been a step behind the play. Instead, he finished Michalek and then rolled off him before going up ice. That put Phaneuf a step ahead of Michalek and he got a good shot opportunity off of the rush.
– Really like Fraser and everything he’s done this season, but he shouldn’t be on the ice for four on four hockey. He took a penalty on the play in Ottawa after being hemmed in his zone for quite some time after having the puck and mishandling it. The Leafs defense remains their biggest work in progress.
– A lot was made about Colton Orr and Fraser McLaren fighting and swinging momentum against the Islanders. I don’t know if that swung momentum, but it definitely slowed the game back down. The Leafs were up 2-0, the crowd was rocking, plus they even killed off a 5 on 3 and the team was pumped up. McLaren’s fight was over a minute and so was Orr’s. There was a commercial between fights and then you have to factor the time added for when these guys skate to the penalty box and all that faceoff stuff. You’re looking at roughly 5-7 minutes of real life time going by for absolutely no reason when the team was pumped up and raring to go at that point.
– Thought this was worth noting: Watch the defensive play by Kadri at the 8 second mark or so before he scored his goal. When Kadri first turned pro, the Leafs spoke a lot about trying to get him to play deeper in his zone defensively. That’s a good example of it.
– Also, I’ve talked about that cut in move by Kadri a lot, but it’s always worth repeating that it’s extremely tough to stop in open ice. If the defenseman cheats to the middle of the ice, Kadri will easily pull it back with a toe drag or by putting it through his legs and take him wide. If he doesn’t cheat, Kadri will do what he did there by flicking it up and cutting in. Also liked how Methot tried to cut across and hammer him when he cut across, but Kadri stood him up.
– It was nice to hear the Leafs went to Florida Saturday night to spend some time in Florida for five days, considering they don’t play until Wednesday against Tampa before playing the Panthers on Thursday. It’s always nice to recharge the batteries a little and they deserve it.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think the top two lines are more or less set in stone as JVR-Bozak-Kessel and Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin. Conversely, the bottom six has been a bit of a mess line-up wise with a lot of shuffling and role confusing. If there’s anything I could do in these last three games, it would be to settle the bottom two lines. It is very late in the season to be doing that, but that’s where we’re at. It seems like they want to run MacArthur-Grabovski-Frattin and Komarov-McClement-Orr, but they keep scratching Frattin last minute for McLaren.
2 – Similarly, I think I’d settle on who the starting six defenders are. They have been going with Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Fraser-Franson, Liles-O’Byrne, but the third pairing has really struggled, and Fraser has been overwhelmed at times in a top four role. Are the Leafs going to stick with these guys, or are they going to consider shuffling in Gardiner and/or Kostka in order to shore up the defense?
3 – I think if the Leafs find themselves in a situation where they can’t move in the standings either way with games to spare, I’d get the ‘reserves’ into game action. If there’s nothing left to play for standings-wise, it would be nice to get guys like Colborne, Hamilton and Kostka into games just to keep them sharp in case they need to be called upon come playoff time. It would be awfully hard to sit for a few weeks and then suddenly be dressed for a playoff game. With the first two points in mind, I’d be sitting guys who are banged up like Gunnarsson while still working on forming two good bottom six lines.
4 – I think I’d give Scrivens one of the starts against Tampa or Florida. Reimer is going to start playing every other day when the playoffs hit, so some rest would be nice. Plus, it’s nice to keep Scrivens sharp and in game form.
5 – I think, seeing as this is the last Leafs Notebook of the regular season, there isn’t much left to say anymore other than the Leafs are in the playoffs. This time next week we will know who the Leafs are playing and we’ll be focused on the upcoming match-up. With that, thanks for reading all season. It’s been a hell of a year.