An energetic second contest for the Maple Leafs saw a lot of players on the 2014 Rookie Camp roster take a step beyond Saturday’s initial impression – even despite the notable names (Nylander, Leivo) not playing.
The group came out hungry, played hard, and displayed a consistent all-around “team game” that was encouraging to see from a squad of individuals largely thrown together for the purposes of individual evaluation. A night that should definitely have some positives taken away from it – despite the outcome.
The Leafs were strong out of the gate tonight, with energy and physicality pouring over the boards in the opening minutes. Leading that charge were two defensemen who have emerged as the Leafs’ most leaned-on pair so far in the 2014 Rookie Camp: Viktor Loov and Tom Nilsson. After a steady-if-unremarkable showing in the first game on Saturday night, the young Swedes looked like entirely different players on Sunday – in a very, very good way.
Loov brought an all-around defensive game to the Leafs’ second match that was hard to miss. Flashes of offensive creativity that appeared on Saturday night became repeated sequences of confidence – on the breakout, the carry, and even in the opposing zone. That’s to say nothing of the momentum-swinging physical impact he brought: an early, massive, totally clean open-ice neutral zone hit that absolutely demolished a Senator player being the case in point. His partner, Nilsson, similarly upped his physical game especially in the Leafs’ own zone – controlling play along the boards with a tenaciousness to both instigate and absorb physical contact when it was necessary to complete the play. Nilsson’s impact wasn’t going unnoticed in the shadow of Loov, either: Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar lined him up for a what-could-have-been-nasty boarding (hitting him right in the numbers) as the first period horn sounded.
Carter Verhaeghe seems to have taken a step in the right direction. If anything held him back last season, it was probably his skating. During the past two games, however, he’s looked much faster and that has led to a number of chances for him and his linemates. Whether it was last night with Leivo or tonight with Biggs, Verhaeghe had no problem gaining the offensive blueline. He and Perlini are going to put up monster numbers in Niagara this year.
Brett Findlay was an invitee that has Dubas written all over it. A former Sault Greyhound, he finished his OHL career on a bad Petes team and because of that, he probably went under-noticed. Well, he had a solid two games, scoring tonight on a spin-o-rama wrist shot that found the corner, and doing a beautiful job of setting up Matt Finn in game one. He’s a guy who’s worth more of a look.
Tyler Biggs. A player whose stock had fallen considerably since his selection in the first round in 2011 (and is probably, maybe, certainly too old and experienced to be playing in the Rookie Camp) displayed – for the second night – the kind of game the Leafs expect him to play and hope he can sustain. After a first period defined by bone crunching hits at every opportunity, Biggs adapted to the shifting game and played a much calmer second period that saw him focus on reliability with the puck and defensive zone responsibilities. That included one standout PK shift in which his active stick disrupted a dangerous Ottawa cross-ice pass attempt nine feet out from Gibson – that wasn’t enough to stop the play outright, but he followed it with a tenacious puck recovery that ended with him completing the zone clear. Noticeably improved lateral movement (mentioned in an @TOTruculent Tweet) was critical here – not sure if Biggs is quantifiably quicker on his skates, but he’s noticeably more comfortable.
Now that we’ve gotten all the silver lining out of the way, should probably mention this one ended 6-2 for the Senators. Yay!