Game Preview: A Battle for Canada’s Top Spot in Vancouver

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Photo: Getty Images-NHL.com

Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs look to remain the NHL’s top Canadian team, but will have to accomplish something they haven’t in 10 tries over 9 years and 343 days: beat the Vancouver Vancouver Canucks.

Two lockouts have passed since the Toronto Maple Leafs swept the Vancouver Canucks in a cross-country home and home in November of 2004. The Vancouver Canucks have beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in ten straight games thanks in large part to their pair of ginger Swedish twins; Daniel Sedin has recorded 18 points over his last 9 against the Toronto Maple Leafs while Henrik has 16 points in 10 games. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been outscored 44-21 over the nine games and haven’t limited the Vancouver Canucks to under five in their last four meetings. Both Sedins will be playing in their first games since inking matching, of course, new contracts for four years, $28 million.

After a horrible showing in an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal sweep at the hands of the Sharks, the dramatic final act to Gillis’ Luongo/Schneider circus in the offseason and the hiring of high-profile coach, things have settled down a little bit in Vancouver thanks to a decent start to the season wherein they’ve gone 9-5-1 and Luongo and Lack have supplied the Vancouver Canucks with good-enough performances between the pipes.

Since taking over the Vancouver Canucks, besides getting his desired spike in blocked shots, John Tortorella decided to stack the Vancouver Canucks top unit by moving Kesler to the right side of the Sedins to create himself more of an all-purpose powerhouse line. The trio has accumulated a combined 44 points. Tortorella has been using his best two players in all situations, unlike the tradition of Alain Vignault of reserving the twins for offensive exploits with heavy ozone starts. The result is the Sedins, who were always bizarrely low in time on ice for each being elite forwards, are now up in the 21-22 minute range.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will be countering the Vancouver Canucks’ twin power with an old enemy in Dave Bolland. Bolland’s history against the Sedins is a hilarious one; it’s for his antics against the Vancouver Canucks and the Sedins that Bolland became known as The Rat. His return from injury with the Hawks down 0-3 in the 2011 playoffs saw him post 6 points over four games as the Hawks almost completed the comeback only to fall in Game 7 OT. His effect was multiplied by his ability to help shut the Sedins down and get under their skin; once he returned, the Sedins combined for only two points over the final four games of the series and were regularly goaded into post-whistle scrums.

There’s also this:

Bolland does not much care for Vancouver and Vancouver doesn’t much care for Bolland. In terms of Bolland’s regular season performances against the Vancouver Canucks over the years, however, he’s been a bit of a nonfactor, posting just three points and a -7 over 18 games.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for their part, will be walking into a wake up call if they aren’t much better than they were last time out versus the Flames. It was a back to back scenario with minimal rest in between, so the Toronto Maple Leafs will happily take the points in the standings over the style points, but they also must learn from it and make some adjustments. The Toronto Maple Leafs were coming off a poor showing against Columbus last Friday, and it had many fans concerned about what was going to happen the next night against one of the league’s better teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Toronto Maple Leafs put on one of their best showings of the season and will need to similarly elevate their game tonight.

Randy Carlyle has been harping on the giveaway problem the last few days in practice; for whatever the stat is worth, the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the league in giveaways with 188, which is 50 worse than next-worst Edmonton (Note: I don’t doubt both teams are poor in this area; however, this is the fourth year running these two teams have been 29th and 30th in giveaways. Probably something to do with the way it’s being recorded in their home rinks). The point remains that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ puck management is their biggest issue when it comes to their possession play, and it is a three zone problem (the breakout is just one albeit significant part of it).

The Toronto Maple Leafs hold the edge in goaltending and special teams going into this one, as they do against most teams. Top 5 scoring, special teams and goaltending are all marks of a good hockey team no matter their shot counts. Nikolai Kulemin is expected to return to the lineup tonight and will more than likely flank one of McClement or Bolland; Kulemin could be a handy defensive presence for Carlyle to have at his disposal in attempting to subdue the Sedins line. What Kulemin does better than any Leaf forward is his work on the walls; he can get pucks deep and go to work on the forecheck, and he’s probably the Toronto Maple Leafs best winger at coming back to support deep into the defensive zone or getting a puck out on the half board.

Carlyle hasn’t confirmed his choice for starter between the pipes. Reimer and Bernier were both great in the back to back; Reimer has the shut out going for him, while Bernier has a little more familiarity with the opponent. We’ll know closer to game time.

In another storyline I should probably mention, Mason Raymond will be facing off against his and Dave Nonis’ former team.

 LeafsCanucks
Record10-4-09-5-1
GF/G3.36 (4th)2.73 (16th)
GA/G2.29 (7th)2.67 (13th)
SF/G26.5 (29th)30.9 (10th)
SA/G36.1 (29th)28.0 (9th)
PP25.5% (2nd)9.3% (28th)
PK86.8% (3rd)86.3% (4th)
5 on 5 F/A1.27 (9th)1.07 (12th)
Sh%12.7% (1st)8.8% (16th)
Sv%93.7% (3rd)90.5% (20th)
FO%45.2 (28th)51.4% (11th)
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]
  • wendelsway1

    Leafs rule Looks good…..Boys are both gone for the weekend…just me and Hubby.  Made some herbed baguettes this morning…..if I pile on the bacon, with some cheese, tomato, lettuce, mayo…..Hubby won’t mind sandwiches tonight, and I won’t have to cook.  :)

  • .JVR.

    Cameron19
    Hard to declare a couple of goalies with 110 and 72 GP as Top 10.
    If they maintain these numbers for the whole season, then maybe you can say they’re Top 10 goaltenders.

  • Leafs rule

    wendelsway1 Leafs rule That reminds me I still have to go shopping ,see yall later

  • wendelsway1

    Leafs rule wendelsway1 Later LR…have a good one!

  • Cameron19

    .JVR. Cameron19 Well, no one has ever maintained those numbers, so yea, obviously.  That would make them the most successful goalies of the modern age. Reimer has been around long enough that we know what he is.  No one questions whether Rask is top ten – he’s only played 140 some games.

  • Belfour20

    Would do you guys think of Byfuglien if he was a leaf? I think he would be a huge addition to the powerplay. imagine him and JVR in front of the net? or his big shot from the point?I wouldnt mind seeing him in leafs blue and white at all.

  • wiski

    wendelsway1 Leafs rule Herbed baguette 😉

  • Cameron19

    Belfour20 Winnipeg loves him, so I don’t see it happening.  He’s a huge fan favorite, and super fun to watch, but he is extremely frustrating defensively.

  • Xxxxxnew

    Just saw the Downie fight. Volpatti knocked somebody down, wasn’t even a big hit, and Downie rushes in to fight him. He didn’t know Volaptti is left handed and caught a left hook right in the eye socket that opened him up.

  • Belfour20

    Cameron19 Belfour20 Yeah, I like how big he is and he can get real mean too! I think he’d do well with RC too! RC is a pretty intimidating guy.