October To Look Forward To

October is high on the minds of many Leafs fans for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the drop of the puck for the 2010-11 NHL regular season.  It also includes the first 10 game stretch of the NHL season, which is what basically sank the Leafs fortunes last season.

This year the Leafs have an interesting opening stretch, and it may or may not bode fortuitously come the end of the season.  If the boys in blue can get on a roll, things may be looking up, particularly if you ask the MSM what to make of the new kids as they begin to blossom.

More on the month to come after the jump.

So let's see, in the month of October, the Leafs start with two home games, opening night on Thursday the 7th against Montreal, and two nights later against Ottawa - both games will be featured on HNIC.  Montreal has a so-so 3-2 record in the pre-season, beating up on Florida, and squeaking past Minnesota and Ottawa, after a couple of early losses to those same Senators and the Bruins.  Lars Eller, the key pick up in the Halak deal has given the Habs a more sizable scoring threat at centre, as he's contributed 3 assists and a +4 rating in 2 games. 

The Habs NHL goaltending, featuring Carey Price and Alex Auld, has looked shaky to say the least.  Price has a 1-2 record, and is boasting a not so stellar 0.803 SV%.  Auld hasn't fared much better, despite playing in 2 of the Habs wins, posting a not much better 0.846 SV%.  Suffice it to say it may be a long year in Montreal if those two can't turn things around in the regular season.  This may bode well for the Leafs on opening night either way.

Ottawa is more of a known quantity to Leafs fans at this point, and again goaltending is a key question.  Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire have yet to decide between them who will take the reins of the starting job in the National Capital.  Aside from that, the Leafs can expect more fisticuffs, though I'm guessing Sens fans would prefer to see Matt Carkner's face getting pounded in to that of Alexei Kovalev.  Spezza, Alfredsson, Foligno, Gonchar, Kovalev, Michalek, Fisher, Regin, etc. should combine to make life difficult on the Leafs blue line and goaltenders, but all in all I think it's a reasonable hope that the Leafs can find a way to sneak past Ottawa.

The Leafs then hit the road briefly for away games against Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers the following Wednesday and Friday respectively.  The long break between the Ottawa and Pittsburgh games should lend itself well to the team healing any remaining injuries, and practicing their systems some more, in a sort of extension of training camp.

Pittsburgh has been undefeated in the preseason so far, and looks like a tough opponent at this point.  The Leafs will likely find it a bit if a rough go at the Pens new arena.  The Rangers game is the first of 3 the Leafs have with the Broadway Blueshirts in October.  The Rangers have added Alex Frolov to an anemic offense that mainly featured Marian Gaborik last year, and not much else.  They also have a tight defensive system, and strong goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist, so that should continue this year.  If the Leafs can outscore the Rangers, they may be able to pick up 2 or 3 wins against them, but so far they look like a decent team having gone 3-1 in the preseason.

The other games in October include match ups with the NY Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers, and Boston Bruins.  The Bruins look like a solid outfit, and despite a lack of depth on the blue line, they added scoring punch in Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin despite the loss of Marc Savard.  They still have top notch goaltending in Rask and Thomas also.  It may be best to consider the Bruins game a likely loss. 

Florida looks like one of the weakest teams in the conference, especially having traded away much of their offensive firepower in recent years in the likes of Jokinen and Horton.  They may well be the easiest team the Leafs face in October.  The other target looks to be the Islanders.  If the Leafs want to climb in the standings, they'll likely need to do it at the expense of their fellow also-rans from last season.  The Isles have already lost Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit to injuries, and their depth is not so great as to allow them to withstand those losses easily.  They may also be easy pickings early in the season.

Philadelphia also has goaltending issues as Michael Leighton has developed back problems, so Brian Boucher is going into this year as the starter, and he has never really carried a team for an extended period.  That being said, the same team was a Stanley Cup Finalist last season, and they've only added other pieces, and largely the remainders of their starters are intact.  They are not an easy victory on any night, and lots of fisticuffs will be expected.

Ed. Note: The first 10 games in summary are;

Montreal

Ottawa

@ Pittsburgh

@ NYR

NYI

NYR

@ Philadelphia

Florida

@ Boston

NYR

Given the Leafs opponents in October, and their own abilities, I would think a record of 5-3-2 would be around expectations.  If the team goes 5-5-0 that's less impressive, but not much worse in the standings.  As make or break months go, this one is being presented as more important as a result of last year's opening month debacle.  It will be interesting to see how the Leafs jump out of the gate.  If they only win half their games then they aren't doing that badly... and they're certainly performing better than last year.

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