After last night there is no shortage of critics jumping on the uselessness of the likes of Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren and by extension the coach who continues to deploy them in his lineup. To varying degrees I have been frustrated with all of them at points throughout the season.
The fact of the matter is that toughness did play an appreciable role in the Leafs success over the 48-game haul. Let’s forget facepunching for today. Without James Reimer there’s no Leafs playoffs, but without a simplification of the defensive game, an emphasis on winning more one on one battles and protecting your net in an overall effort to reduce chances inside 20 feet, maybe Reimer isn’t in a position so much to succeed.
Randy Carlyle clearly has some loyalty to the Frasers (24 minutes last night despite being fully submerged from his first shift onwards) and Kostkas because, and try to get your frustrated head out of last night’s game for a minute (hint: everyone save a select few looked pretty terrible and made mistakes, Phaneuf, Kadri, Lupul on down), they have for the most part this season done the very simple things Carlyle asked of his team from a defensive standpoint.
It wasn’t like the Leafs played an otherwise good game that Fraser and Kostka individually screwed up for them. That said, Carlyle will need to adjust to the realities of the current matchup or it could go the way it did last night three more times. The Boston Bruins are a different animal and the Leafs cannot play Bruin hockey against Boston and expect to beat them at it. Not at playoff level intensity, anyways. It will require some creative game planning if the Leafs are to make this a series.
Inserting Ryan O’Byrne could be a sideways step. Alternatively, an infusion of puck moving ability and speed on the puck end could change the dynamic for a defence that simply could not make the right split second decisions at the speed required under the degree of pressure the Bruins were exerting. Will Jake Gardiner get outcompeted in his own zone like he did last time in Boston? Maybe. I have been Gardiner’s biggest critic this season, but if Fraser and Kostka aren’t doing the basics well they’re doing nothing well at all. These are two inexperienced D playing too many minutes (not exclusively Carlyle’s fault, Leafs D is a positional weakness) in their first playoff action against a Bruins team that is bringing the heat. Whether it’s Fraser coming out because Gardiner’s left handed or whatever, I hope Carlyle gives this serious consideration.
The point has been made often that the Canadiens had the Bruins number this season and it was not as a result of trying to out-tough the toughest team in the East. Hockey toughness is not just how many checks you finish or how many punches you throw, though those are part of it, but it’s the way the Bruins apply a relentless forecheck and make their opponent fight for every inch of ice. I’ve liked that the Leafs have improved the physical side of their game this season, and it’s contributed to success under Carlyle, but the fact of the matter is that the Leafs as currently constituted will never do this as well as their current opponent.
Don’t get me wrong, the Leafs will absolutely have to show more willingness to sacrifice themselves on the forecheck to fight for more offensive zone time in this series. More turnovers at the blueline instead of getting the puck deep, or at best a one and done rush, will simply not get the job done. But the Leafs will never play Bruin hockey better than the Bruins. They do have the assets, however, to roll four lines (inserting Frattin, maybe Colborne), to increase their mobility and puck moving off the backend and to try to test the Bruins with speed and scoring depth.
As an FYI, Carlyle has already promised changes.
What say you, MLHS?