This was more like the game fans were picturing following a coaching change.

Despite Franson and Phaneuf (falling over) teaming up for an early blunder leading to a Ryan Johansen breakaway goal out of nothing, the Leafs shook it off; an early bit of bad news going against a fragile team can sometimes end ugly, but the Leafs didn’t respond like a team mired in turmoil.

A bounce going the right way can be a great relief for a team tightly gripping the sticks, and the Leafs got one off a centering pass from Tyler Bozak that went in off a skate. From there, the Leafs were off and running in the first period. Bozak made another good play to recover a puck after Winnik’s initial forecheck before setting up Winnik in the slot for the 2-1 goal, and then the Leafs got a second favourable bounce on the powerplay, one they earned with some fantastic puck movement in the build up. The Kessel and JvR connection worked some magic twice and the Leafs had all of a sudden opened up a three-goal lead inside nine minutes. Maybe it was some of that work Horachek was putting in with Kessel in practice with his half-wall play on the powerplay, or maybe we’re reading entirely too far into everything; either way, the recently-sliding powerplay came back to life in a big way (coaching staff also had Franson and Phaneuf switch sides).

Toronto looked like the fast and aggressive version of themselves, which is when any team is at its best. Reduced gaps in the breakout, and the presence of forward support for the D with and without the puck enable that identity, and it’s about commitment as much as anything systematic. Panthers observers noted a switch in their team from a more passive group under Kevin Dineen to a more aggressive identity under Horachek, so maybe this is the start of better times, but it’s far too early to be making such declarations. For now, it’s something to build on with a tough stretch of schedule coming up.

The Leafs have averaged 23 shots against and 32 for over two games under Horachek so far, and the shots against were particularly impressive in tonight’s game given the score effects of a three-goal lead (just 20, only bested by the Buffalo game when they gave up 10 in late October) . The Leafs typically take score effects to a whole new level, but they actually stiffened up with the lead, allowing just 12 over the final two periods. The attention to detail and the effort level was as consistent through 60 minutes as any game this year. The Leafs gave up just five shots in the home plate area per the shot location chart below.

Horachek liked his four lines tonight, and expressed regret for not getting the new fourth line (Smith, Bodie, Booth) more ice. Expect the lines (Winnik-Bozak-Kessel; JvR-Kadri-Panik; Booth-Smith-Bodie) to hold from one game to the next for the first time in quite a while.

The real test is soon to follow with the dreaded trip through the California along with a stop over in St. Louis. Horachek was realistic about the wins over LA and Anaheim earlier this season, acknowledging they were mostly thanks to goaltending. The coach’s press conferences are actually worth listening to again on account of the to-the-point, common sense assessments involved, by the way.

A few notes:

– It seems Peter Horachek is sticking by the right process instead of abandoning it at the first sign of trouble. Bozak next to Kessel won’t win over some crowds, but JvR, Bozak and Kessel took a few shifts together when trailing versus the Capitals (as much flak as it takes, there are certain situations where reuniting a line that’s scored a tonne together before and is your PP #1 unit makes sense), and Horachek went right back to Winnik on L1 tonight. Winnik had Ray Ferraro eating crow, showing why he’s been an effective complement to skilled lines in the past, and two goals in two games is gravy.

– We wondered about it in the post after last game, when he played not just a season high but a career high 23:45 — Peter Horachek was aware Morgan Rielly’s icetime was too low under Carlyle. He again played far above his season average, playing the most minutes on the team at even strength (20:30). He responded to the show of faith after a down game versus Washington with a strong effort including a big recovery to negate the shot entirely on a clear breakaway for Nick Foligno. This is how development should work.

– Curious to see how Horachek uses the fourth line in the back to back next week. In his post game he went out of his way to mention he wants to get line four’s minutes up.

– With 15 shots and five points between Kessel and JvR, multi-point games from Bozak and Franson, the key to the game wasn’t tough to ascertain: The Leafs best players were their best players for the first time in a while. After his initial blunder, Phaneuf along with Franson settled into a good physical game against the big and skilled Columbus top line as well.

–  Looking ahead to this California road trip, the Leafs seem to be the recipient of some of the most ridiculous scheduling imaginable this month. For the second time in three weeks the team will play a heavily-compacted road stretch followed by a lengthy break. The Leafs will go to Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, Carolina and Ottawa for six games in ten days before an entire week off between January 21 and 28; this after playing five road games in seven days before getting four days off in the stretch after Christmas that ended with Randy Carlyle getting fired.

 

Shot Location Chart

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets

Possession Chart

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets Corsi

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Columbus Blue Jackets

NO.PLAYERPOSGAP+/-PIMSHITSFO%PP TOISH TOITOI
3D. PhaneufD0000013-4:281:4223:08
4C. FransonD022-1010-4:041:0819:55
12S. RobidasD0000005-0:341:3016:30
18R. PanikR000-1031-1:130:0017:40
20D. BoothL0000000-0:001:568:06
21J. van RiemsdykL2130281-4:350:0019:31
23T. SmithC000000050%0:000:196:56
25M. SantorelliC000002050%0:000:3812:10
26D. WinnikC1123210-0:001:0617:36
40T. BodieR0000002-0:000:005:08
42T. BozakC112303050%4:350:5722:23
43N. KadriC000-102250%1:130:0017:23
44M. RiellyD0002021-1:100:0021:41
46R. PolakD0003014-0:002:0422:23
47L. KomarovC000001260%0:001:2815:16
51J. GardinerD0000002-1:200:0016:22
71D. ClarksonR0000001-1:130:0013:40
81P. KesselR1122071-4:350:0021:00
NO.PLAYERSAVES - SHOTSSV%PIMTOI
34J. Reimer0 - 0000:00
45J. Bernier18 - 200.9060:00:00
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Forwards
85 %
Defence
90 %
Special Teams
85 %
Goaltending
90 %
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at alec.brownscombe@mapleleafshotstove.com.