That one word sums up my thoughts during last night's game. Who was this team that was relentlessly forechecking the opposition into submission? Who was this team that broke out of their zone so effortlessly that even when the opposition was able to thwart the first effort they managed to regroup and exit the zone? Who was this team that held the opposition to 25 mostly harmless shots? Who was this team that only took 3 penalties and drew countless more with their quickness and ability to find goal-scoring opportunities? 12 months ago the answer, of course, would have been whoever the Leafs were playing. What a difference a year makes. Last night Toronto did all the above and more to leave me confounded as to what I was watching.
Just kidding, I knew exactly what I was watching especially when the team took two penalties to go down 5-on- 3 and gift the Panthers the lead. Old habits die hard but they are dying and that is progress in and of itself. After years of Pat Quinn's laissez-faire approach succeeding in the regular season Toronto found that it no longer had the horses (or goaltending) to run that race. Enter Paul Maurice. This year's team has shown that despite whatever shortcomings it may possess (see: goals, scoring of) it will not be outworked. After such a dominant evening it is really hard to say anything bad about any of the Leafs. The top three lines were rolling and, Mats Sundin especially, seeming to love Maurice's three line policy (Pohl, Bates, and Belak saw about 5 minutes of ice time).
Alex Auld was lights out and any other night we would have seen a blowout along the lines of the 6-0 sens game. Tucker and O'Neill, who had two point blank chances stopped, will feel most aggrieved at not tickling the twine. Kyle Wellwood was rewarded for his strong game (and team leading 24 minutes) with the goal that he threatened to score all night when he blasted a 20 foot slap shot under Auld's glove on a partial break. The play was set up by a pass by a diving Pavel Kubina that was redirected to Wellwood by Tucker who made his return to the top line after Ponikarovsky showed a worrying habit of rifling shots right at the goalie's crest. Maybe we can ask the league to change any logos that could potentially hypnotize Poni.
Overtime did not settle anything and off we went to the shootout where Raycroft stopped both shots (the first hit the bar). Mats pulled the good olf NHL 94, skate to one side and shoot to the other side move (never fails) while Darcy showed what he could do with a perfect backhand deke and shot through Auld's legs. Last year, among many small things that accumulated into missing the playoffs, the Leafs were only 3-7 in shootouts while often looking completely lost. This year they are 1-1 and the players have altered their approach to the extra point. Most notably, the captain has changed his slow approach (not Allison slow but measured) to last night's breakneck approach,
"I think last year, I was coming in a little slow," he said. "I'm trying to put myself more in a game-type situation on the shootout. Unlike last year when I was coming in a little slower and trying to pick the corner. Now, I'm coming in with more speed and I think it's working for me."
Just how good were the Leafs last night? So good that War wrote a complimentary piece. Granted, he ended it by noting that we should enjoy the Leafs early success because there will be a lot of time to agonize over their failures at some point in the future when they inevitably fail. But at least he's watching the games now.
The sole truly black mark on the game was the sight of Pavel Kubina writhing in agony on the ice after Todd Bertuzzi collided knee on knee with him in front of the Leafs' net. The unfortunate accident has left the Leafs with only five defenceman for Thursday's game. Conflicting reports have Kubina and the Leafs awaiting more tests to gauge the significance of the injury, Sportsnet says it is an MCL sprain, and HockeyBuzz (the post has been changed to reflect and MCL sprain) originally had Kubina out for the season. Hopefully, it will be a short layoff since he was starting to show what a key component of the defence he could become.
And because it's my favourite part of the game recaps here is...
The Final Word
A big goal from a young player of uncertain capabilities before the season started and a huge game-saving stop from a goaltender whom Boston believed had lost his mojo are accomplishments for Ferguson and Maurice to savour.
Damien Cox, Toronto Star, clearly did not see Don Cherry calling him out about Wellwood.
Alex Auld saved the Panthers all night, but he couldn't save them in the shootout.Having made one spectacular save after another, he wasn't able to stop Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker. Meanwhile, neither Nathan Horton nor Todd Bertuzzi got their shots past Andrew Raycroft in the shootout, as the Panthers lost 2-1 to the Maple Leafs on Monday night at Air Canada Centre.
Steve Gorten, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, chronicles about the only thing The Defendant did all night.