Slump-Buster

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 16: Kris Versteeg #32 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Nashville Predators during game action at the Air Canada Centre November 16 2010 in Toronto Ontario Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Quick, dirty, ugly... any way you describe the way the Leafs-Preds game unfolded, it all amounts to the same thing: SLUMP BUSTER.

The Leafs finally got into the W column, and while they did everything they could to hand it over on a silver platter to the Predators (4 giveaway goals, short handed marker, starting goalie ducking out with an injury midway through the 3rd, penalties to finish off the game) I guess the plucky, defensive specialists from Nashville just wanted it less and found a way to lose.

Let's be honest, this was atrociously bad hockey from both teams, and the combined 41 giveaways kind of make that obvious. Just by way of comparison, Philadelphia had 41 shots and only made 4 giveaways to Montreal in a 3-0 loss last night, while the Habs gave the puck up 10 times... that's 14 total.  That's one third of the giveaways in the Leafs-Preds matchup.  This is a large part of why the Leafs are not going to be stalking the top of the conference anytime in the immediate future.

Most fans could be forgiven for wanting to turn the game off after the first  15 minutes.  I certainly came close after the post-timeout Grabovski giveaway goal.  But hey we hung in, Schenn scored to close out the 1st, and eventually the table tilted severely against the grain to give the Leafs a ridiculous 3 consecutive 5-on-3 power plays.

This one reminded me a bit of the Anaheim game last year that skewed the Leafs PP stats for almost two thirds of last season.  Following that train of thought, the Leafs jumped from 27th in the NHL PP rankings to 17th in one nights work - all I can say is ridiculous.  Their PK was also marginally effective and now sits 25th, although I must say based on the number of solo chances in front of the goalie, I don't think the Predators were sweating bullets in the slot with the Leafs PK unit to face up against.

So let's look at some of those closer stats shall we?

The Leafs officially have a top line, and no I don't mean Kessel, Bozak, and Kadri.  Grabovski, Kulemin, and MacArthur have now combined for 9 goals and 10 assists for 19 points in the past 7 games.  Despite the Leafs losing ways, that amounts to 2.71 points per game.  

Compare that to the likes of Philly where Giroux, Richards, and Carter have combined for 14 goals and 26 points in their past 7 or 3.71 points per game; or Washington where Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom have combined for 11 goals and 32 points in their past 7 4.57 points per game, and you begin to realize just how far away the Leafs are offensively from the top end of the East.

Unfortunately that level of top line production isn't going to win the Leafs many games and their other top offensive talents (Kessel and Versteeg) need to get going.  Versteeg in particular was finally productive, putting up 2 goals in the game on the power play.  He now has a not so special 4 goals on the year and he'll need to continue to produce if the Leafs expect to improve much in the near term.  Kessel also added a couple of assists but he'll need to find his scoring touch again if the Leafs are hoping to go on a decent run in a positive direction.

Another noticeable improvement was on the offensive production of the defense.  Luke Schenn scored his first goal of the year on a very pretty deke and shot and Tomas Kaberle contributed 2 assists on the night.  The blue line has not produced as expected so far this season. Without that production the Leafs offense will continue to struggle.

Luckily next up is New Jersey and they are one of the few teams the Leafs can argue they have been better than over most of the year.  They still shouldn't be taken lightly but they're beginning to resemble Atlanta North now that Kovy has landed for a long term stay.  I wonder if Lou Lameirello wants to move North for a bit to hang out with his buddies Brian and Ron? Just a suggestion.

Jonas Gustavsson replaced the injured J.S. Giguere in the 3rd period and was stalwart in not allowing any pucks to sneak by him on the PK or otherwise.  He improved his SV% to .902, and his PK SV% to a still not so great .739. His Even Strength SV% remains a solid .926 though, which ranks him in a 17th place tie with Jonas Hiller, and right behind Jaroslav Halak and Jimmy Howard (amongst goalies with over 100 shots faced at even strength). That's middle of the pack territory and he could easily improve on the PK numbers with some more playing time.

On the injury front, if Giguere is injured longer term, Gustavsson may well get an opportunity to run with things in the interim, and the Leaf faithful may get to check out reigning AHL player of the week Jussi Rynnas if he gets the call up from the Marlies.  Colby Armstrong is back skating and gave a little interview regarding his re-attached tendon yesterday, so he's probably approaching his return date.  Dion Phaneuf is still out for a while but Keith Aulie has looked solid if not spectacular as a fill in.  The kids are alright at the moment, and Nazem Kadri isn't doing any serious damage to his reputation defensively right now... no gaffe goals off his screw ups on this occasion.

Overall the Leafs played pretty crappy hockey, but in the end all people will remember is the W.  Hopefully they can string some solid play together and loosen up a bit, and once that happens we can get a better read on who is and who isn't producing at this level right now.  Here's hoping the uptick continues against New Jersey. 

New Jersey - the team whose leading scorer, Patrik Elias, has 11 points, and is a -8 on the year.  Top blue line scorer Andy Greene has 8 points and is already a -13 on the year.  Huge off-season choke artist - I mean signing - Ilya Kovalchuk has scored all of 4 goals and 9 points so far this season, on track for a stupendous 19 goal season.  So much for being a top goal guy in the NHL eh Ilya?

The goaltending isn't up to snuff right now from Martin Brodeur either.  Although his numbers are eerily similar to those of J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson on the surface.  His SV% of .901 is masking the fact that his ES SV% is a less than stellar .902 on the season.  That's 32 goals on 294 shots against.  Compare that to Giguere's 24 goals against on 229 shots on goal (.905 ES SV%) or Gustavsson's 9 goals on 113 shots against (.926 mentioned earlier).  The Leafs goalies have allowed 1 more even strength goal together than Brodeur has on the year, despite facing a total of 48 more even strength shots.  He's beatable ladies and gentlemen.

Overall this is another winnable game, and if the Leafs want to continue to improve, they damn near have to win it.

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