What a week for fans of the Leafs. We've had the Slide for Stamkos going for a long while now and through most of it's existence the Leafs have been ensconced in 28th place. This week not only saw the Leafs beat bitter rivals ottawa and Montreal, who are being touted as the class of the East, but yesterday they beat an Original Six rival the Detroit Red Wings. Of course, the first two victories were impressive in that the Leafs carried the balance of play but I would argue that last night's game was possibly more enlightening than both. Of course, that 8-0 thrashing at the hans of Florida was the most illuminating game of the week but let's focus on the positive before I go back to the negative and end with a ray of hope.
The Leafs went into yesterday's game with a clear game plan. While they felt able to skate and attack Montreal and Ottawa they knew that they couldn't get into a track meet with the Red Wings. So the team played a conservative game which sought to keep the Wings to the...wings (dammit) and it worked. While Toskala made 32 saves many were made to look easy because of his solid positioning and the location of the shots. The Red Wings didn't create much, and to be fair neither did the Leafs, and their two goals were flukes to say the least. While it made for a really boring game it did show that with a healthy defence the Leafs might have some grasp of the fundamentals of preventing goals. Or they were just lucky.
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I was especially pleased to see Antropov score the winner after returning from his 3 game suspension. It was his 19th of the year which marks a career high for the lanky Canadian. The pass from Stralman was beautiful and kind of reminded me of a similar goal scored by a citizen of the former Soviet Union...
Of course, that goal sent the Leafs onto the second round of the playoffs in 1993 while Antropov's goal just served to further confuse Leaf fans.
What these three games managed to do was move the Leafs down from a 14.2% chance to get the top pick to a 10.7% chance of winning the lottery. Here's where the bad news come in because even with these three improbable wins the Leafs are still on pace to finish 14th in the conference based on the point per game that they have accumulated being averaged out over 82 games. I don't know why Toronto sports media are panicking that the Leafs will play their way out of the lottery. Maybe they can't do simple math?
Now, there are a couple of theories as to why the Leafs have played well over the last while. My initial thought was that they were going to repay Leaf fans with wins over the senators and Habs to finish the season so that at least we could use that as a stick with which to defend ourselves from their fans' scorn. Couple it with the win over the Sabres and it looks like maybe that's what the team is doing. If you look at the schedule for the rest of the year the Leafs have 10 games against the sens, Sabres, and Habs which would be good for 20 points. Based on the expected points table that would also be good enough to finish last in the East. I would gladly accept that gift from the Leafs to make up for the rest of this debacle of a season.
The other theory came up yesterday over some world class guacamole and hot wings: There is no pressure. It's no secret that the Leafs have performed better in the last two years when the pressure was off compared to when they were feeling it. In 2005-2006, after the back-to-back whitewashes against the Habs in Montreal the Leafs were officially declared dead and finished the season 9-1-2. Last year, on March 16th the Leafs lost 5-1 to the Washington Capitals and woke up on the 17th in 10th place in the conference. For all intents and purposes they were still alive in the playoff race. They were robbed of a win in Montreal and beat the Habs before losing the infamous 5-4 collapse in Buffalo against the Sabres. They awoke on the 24th in eleventh place in the conference and officially declared dead by the Toronto media. The team finished the year 5-2-1 and almost sneaked into the playoffs. Both seasons they played much better once the pressure of expectations was removed from their shoulders.
This year, of course, everyone lost hope for the team much earlier in the year. After the firing of JFJ and the announcement of Cliff Fletcher as interim GM on January 22nd the Leafs have a record of 4-3-1. In the days after the announcement all of the speculation surrounded who would be traded, for what, and who would have to be bought out. However, in the past 4 games the Leafs are 3-1. Maybe Fletcher whispered in their ears to stop worrying about whether they'd be on their way out. Maybe Fletcher told the team that there would be no changes until the end of the year. Maybe he found a way to take off the pressure. Maybe, just maybe, Fletcher has found a way to screw us out of a lottery pick!
Who was the Leafs' Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Vesa Toskala (32 saves)
Nik Antropov (Game Winner)
Mats Sundin (Game tying goal)
Tomas Kaberle (2 assists)