Recent games have seen the Maple Leafs play well via a hard working possession game, yet fail to be rewarded with a win.
Tuesday night saw them put a halt to that trend, securing the road win against the high-octane Dallas Stars on the back of a marvellous performance by James Reimer.
After winning their most recent match against the Stars – also on the back of a brilliant showing by Reimer – it looked to be a difficult task repeating that feat in Dallas itself. This game featured stretches of strong play from both sides, with a tonne of line matching from two of the most savvy bench bosses in the NHL in Lindy Ruff and Mike Babcock.
The most prominent of the matchup games? Lindy Ruff trying his darndest to get Art Ross trophy winner Jamie Benn and his running mate Tyler Seguin away from the clutches of the Morgan Rielly pairing. Yes, the 21 year old blueliner formed a formidable enough pairing with Matt Hunwick that Ruff wanted his top guns to avoid them at all costs. This speaks volumes about Rielly’s development as an elite two-way defender. It probably also says a little about the aptitude of Toronto’s other defenders as Benn and co. were happily trotted out against both the Phaneuf and Polak pairings all night long.
James Reimer set the tone for his night early. Optimus Reim has been getting his groove back and quickly trotted out his endearing brand of “ugly but effective” goaltending. This was driven home with a tip-of-the-glove save on a bewildered Ales Hemsky in the first period.
The team didn’t let his performance go for naught as they took the lead on their first and only powerplay of the game later that period. This powerplay featured sustained pressure and unusually sharp puck movement that bordered on Kaberle-esque overpassing. The goal itself was a result of a well-fought puck battle by Tyler Bozak, who dished it to Gardiner at the point. Gardiner’s point shot was tipped by recent scratch Peter Holland and you could almost feel Holland’s sigh of relief from your couch at home. Dear Mike Babcock, thank you for not taking a page out of Randy Carlyle’s book and negating any chance Holland had at redemption by shafting him with seven minutes of ice and no powerplay time.
Somewhat predictably, the second period saw the Leafs desperately try to hold onto their tenuous lead. Optimus Reim was up to the task, looking particularly good against an absolutely terrifying Stars powerplay five minutes into the third. As an aside – if you still listen to the actual broadcast you would know that the super technical, undisputed and possibly overused term for Reimer’s style is “battling.” Unfortunately the very speedy Patrick Sharp beat Matt Hunwick to a puck late in the period and snuck the tying goal in short-side on our favourite blue and white battler.
It almost looked like a Carlyle-era game when Vernon Fiddler potted a lucky goal a few minutes into the third. You know the type: outshot while barely holding on due to a virtuoso performance in net, only to crumble in the most backbreaking way possible. Praise be to Babcock as his version of the Leafs responded admirably. In particular, the Kadri and Bozak lines had a sequence of energetic and effective shifts as the period went on. A workmanlike effort by the Matthias, Parenteau and Bozak trio twelve minutes into the final frame resulted in a Leafs goal and a 2-2 score. Matthias was especially strong in this sequence in what was possibly a better cycle shift than we saw all of last year. The catalyst for the goal itself was none other than the aforementioned Morgan Rielly. Rielly dashed in deep to take advantage of his teammate’s strong cycle and dished the puck out in front to Parenteau for the goal.
To cap off what was overall a great game for the Leafs, Jake Gardiner stole victory from the jaws of defeat with the go-ahead marker on a slapper with just a few minutes left. Kadri gained the zone beautifully on this play and Komarov went to work digging the puck out. Van Riemsdyk, who had a strong night, then carried the puck through the zone before setting up Gardiner for the winner.
With this win the Leafs have points in four of their last five. Finally receiving solid goaltending and with a consistently strong possession game, is it possible that this team turns it around somewhat?
Let’s be real – nobody would look at this Toronto roster and say they’re good. But they’re not the bottom-of-the-barrel, not-so-subtly-tanking awful that the Sabres and Coyotes were last year. Depending on your perspective with respect to Toronto’s need for Matthews and Chychrun, this may be an unwelcome fact. But it’s worth remembering that this is still a team adjusting to a new coach and a drastic overhaul in systemic play. We saw it last year with Barry Trotz’s Capitals as he stressed patience during what was a very slow start for his squad.
Simply put – it’s still too early to tell what type of team this will be. Certainly, many in Leafs Nation would be content with a hard working team with strong systemic play that finishes near the bottom of the league. Thus far, with a dearth of scoring and inconsistent goaltending, that may still become a reality.
However, some degree of statistical course correction is likely imminent (read: Nazem Kadri’s dismal shooting percentage, impressive team possession metrics). Moreover, it’s very possible that some of the free agent secondary scoring (Boyes, Parenteau, Matthias etc.) becomes more productive as they acclimate to a new city, team and coach. The coming stretch of four games in six days (really NHL schedulers…really?) will continue to reveal exactly what manner of beast we have in the 2015-16 Maple Leafs.
Nazem Kadri – One of the noticeable and welcome changes with this year’s team has been an increase in faceoff prowess. After finishing 20th in the league with a team average sub-50%, the Leafs have risen to 8th in the early going of this campaign. Where did this improvement come from? Bozak has always been good on the draw – one of his redeeming qualities – so there’s no change there. Spaling has been a nice addition and is consistently a solid faceoff performer.
However, the biggest internal improvement has come from Nazem Kadri, who has traditionally been very poor in the faceoff dot. In my mind it was one of the biggest knocks against his potential long-term fixture as a top six center for this franchise. Kadri wasn’t just “kind of bad.” He has bordered on abysmal in the circle, regularly coming in around the 45% mark. For the first couple of seasons of a young center’s NHL career, poor faceoff performance is mostly to be expected. It’s a skill that can be worked on and typically improves with experience against the league’s other centermen. However, it had reached the point where you had to genuinely wonder if Kadri would ever figure out that part of the game.
Yet he dominated tonight (71%) and sits at 52% on the season. Truthfully: not really sure how it happened or if it is just a mirage due to a small sample size. Yet, if Kadri has truly improved in this area, it would be yet another big step forward for a player that has taken many such steps this season. We’re witnessing one of the best homegrown Leafs prospects in recent memory blossoming before our eyes and it’s a pleasure to watch.
James Van Riemsdyk – Someone needs to show James Van Riemsdyk video of tonight’s game and tell him, “hey James, play like this always please.” JVR is at his best when he turns on his jets and utilizes his large frame and naturally elite skill set to control the game. In fact, the same someone could show Van Riemsdyk video from his first season as a Leaf and there’d be many similar instances. As Van Riemsdyk spent more time with Kessel he developed a tendency to defer to Phil, catering his game around number 81 to his own detriment. Now that JVR looks around and realizes he is the top offensive threat on this squad he is beginning to take matters into his own hands again. That is when he is at his best. Some of Van Riemsdyk’s playoff performances (2010-2011 and 2012-2013) stand out to me as his peak potential as a player. He averaged a silly 5.7 shots per game and scored at a 40 goal pace in the postseason over those two years. He was the epitome of an unstoppable power forward worthy of the 2nd overall pick. Yet the issue for James has always been consistency. The expectation should be that this develops under the tutelage of Babcock and with an increased responsibility away from the shadow of Phil Kessel.
Tyler Bozak – Another player that undoubtedly catered his game to Kessel was Tyler Bozak. Will he, like Van Riemsdyk, realize his full potential and improve now that Kessel is gone? Not a chance. But Bozak has certainly stepped up his effort and showed a surprising ability to be a part of an effective cycling line tonight. Still, Tyler Bozak likely has no long-term place on this team. However, the hope remains that he can prove his worth sans Kessel to a level that will make him a somewhat-valuable asset. He is a useful utility player with a respectable mix of offensive skill and faceoff prowess. At least we hope that’s how Lou is selling him.
Scott Harrington – Harrington has strung together some solid play in a bottom pairing role for the Leafs. He comes pretty much as advertised – with a safe game complemented by good puck skills and mobility. He serves as a nice contrast to his current partner Roman Polak with respect to how the game is shifting in terms of its blueliners. Polak is the type of hard-nosed, physical defender that would have been a mainstay in an older NHL. However, his puck skills are questionable at times (just hit the net Roman) and his foot speed is lacking. While the need still remains for safe defenders, they are now also required to be reasonably fleet of foot with the ability to make skilled outlet passes and plays in the offensive zone. Harrington may fit the bill here, although it is still too early to tell for sure.
James Reimer – I would be remiss if I didn’t include some commentary on the Leafs best player over their last few games. We’re all pretty familiar with Reimer by this point. But during the mess that has been the last two seasons it’s easy to forget the position that James found himself in during the summer of 2013. Fresh off of a 0.924 save percentage campaign that took the Leafs to their first playoffs in far too long; his club had gone out and traded for Jonathan Bernier. With the franchise’s #1 essentially already decided, it was impossible for James “just ok” Reimer to receive any stretch of extended playing time. Now, with a new coach and improved system, Reimer is capitalizing on Bernier’s injury and showing that he can still play. Once again, sample size prevents any firm conclusions here but Reimer is likely a goalie that needs to get in a rhythm – something he has not been allowed a proper chance to do since 2012-2013. This may give the club some cause to reconsider their depth chart. More likely, it will just end up making Reimer more palatable trade bait. Either way, it’s very easy to cheer for a very likeable Leaf in his quest for redemption.
Scoring Chance Location Chart
Shot Attempt Location Chart
Shot Location Chart
Leafs Player Possession Stats vs. Stars
|Name||Corsi For||Corsi Against||Corsi||Corsi For%||Zone Start%|
|JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK||21||15||6||58.33%||75%|
Leafs Player Stats vs. Stars
|PLAYER||G||A||P||+/-||PIM||S||HITS||BKS||FO%||PP TOI||SH TOI||TOI|
|J. van Riemsdyk||0||1||1||1||0||4||2||1||-||0:52||0:00||16:16|
Mike Babcock Post Game
Game in 10