I’d be remiss if I didn’t start this week’s ramblings by touching on the first Toronto Maple Leafs playoff win in the better part of a decade. From the storylines, to the matchup strategy, to the quality of Toronto’s goals, to the cultural relevence of the event, that was just a totally engrossing game of playoff hockey.
In addition to losing games by the dozen, the Buds have actually been an entertaining team to watch for several seasons now. In 2010-11 the Leafs became a surprisingly good team over the latter half of the year, as Reimer became the full-time starter, Phaneuf emerged as a capable two-way player (he was mostly an offensive specialist who could hit in Calgary), and Phil Kessel was on his way to his third of four straight thirty goal seasons (a streak that only the lockout ended).
The next year the Leafs had a well publicized hot start to the season, but were betrayed by their goaltending down the stretch as James Reimer battled with concussion issues. Though this core Leafs group hasn’t yet managed to string together a full season of successful hockey, they’re a pretty interesting team with a lot of speed, some sandpaper and enviable offensive skill. When they put it together like they did on Saturday, and granted that was the first time they’ve played that well all season, it’s a potent mix.
I still think the Bruins will win this series in five or six games, but there’s some reason to believe that the Leafs may have found a new level of performance, or gear, with the lineup they used on Saturday. In particular, puck moving defenceman Jake Gardiner has been in the press box (or at Ricoh) all year long in favour of Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser. Though they’ve both been leaned on heavily by Randy Carlyle this season, I tend to think of Fraser and Kostka as basically AHL quality defenceman, or guys you want as – at best – the seventh defenceman on your roster.
Same goes for Frazer McLaren. It’s deifnitely fun to watch him laugh at guys while they throw punches at him, but he’s not a contributing NHL player beyond his face punching…
The point here is that in Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs have now added a couple of fast players who can legitimately contribute at the NHL level. Frattin, for example, took the occassional first line shift on Saturday which allowed Carlyle to get Phil Kessel away from Chara for a shift here and there throughout game two. That’s not something that McLaren can provide you with really.
So long as Frattin and Gardiner remain in the lineup, there’s at least an argument to be made that Toronto can propel play better now than they did this past season. Against a Bruins team that is just so far superior to the Maple Leafs at even-strength, that’s going to be critical. On the other hand, maybe I’m over-stating it a bit here and maybe asking Gardiner and Frattin to drive play is a bit much. But asking them to be better than Mke Kostka/Frazer McLaren isn’t…
Carlyle handled his matchups well on Saturday and the Leafs managed to exploit a Boychuk-Seidenberg pairing that, yeah, leaves a lot to be desired really. He deserves some praise for that, but how much praise can you really give a guy for taking a break from repeatedly shooting himself in the foot?
Nonis’ reaction to Boston’s second goal was priceless.