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On The Upswing

I've noticed confidence waning in these parts.  The fan confidence poll is down to 64 and dropping.  But not all hope is lost, these things come in waves you see.  Think of the season as  series of cycles, the cycle length can vary, but generally speaking teams will go through peaks and valleys over the course of the year.

The Leafs were definitely on a high at the start of the season, they did some good things in their first game against the Habs, they fired on all cylinders in a demolition of the Sens in game 2, then they came up against a tougher opponent in the Penguins but they still made things work and got the victory within regulation, despite being outplayed.  In their first game against the Rangers, the production was beginning to falter even more, but the Rangers were playing poorly, their goaltending hadn't worked itself out yet, and their top players were unable to finish the full game.  The Leafs team made things last to OT, and luckily Phil Kessel fired home the winner.  

4-0-0, and despite our leanings to the contrary, we all could see the chinks in the armour beginning to show.  Then came the match up with John Tavares, Dwayne Roloson, and the Islanders.  Sure they were missing Mark Streit, and Kyle Okposo, and Rick DiPietro was on the sidelines, but they were improving early in the season also.  We pushed the game to OT, but we couldn't prevail, and the Isles took the game on Tavares' first ever OT Winner.

Then came the decline below sea level.  In the 2nd game against the Rangers we couldn't help but have every possible attempt we fired at the net blocked, and Marty Biron somehow looked like a Vezina candidate suddenly... making a backup look good... sound familiar?  

Next up were the Flyers, a team most expected at the start of the year to dominate the likes of the Leafs, improved or not.  They were Stanley Cup finalists, and it didn't matter that their starting goalie was injured, since they didn't really rely on goaltending to make it that far anyway.  So another back up goalie, Brian Boucher, was expected to shut down the Leafs wilting offense, while the Flyers scorers and depth of talent stopped the Leafs in their tracks.   Except, the Flyers were coming off 3 straight home ice losses to teams on the 2nd night of back to backs, and their top scorers in the form of Richards and Carter weren't really producing at all.  Briere was leading the way, but the second guy on the list was Claude Giroux... and the D hadn't looked that great either.

The Leafs actually scored on Boucher, when the puck actually found the net, but they still lost the game handily 5-2, as Richards broke out of his slump, and J.S. Giguere looked soft for the first time this season.  Dion Phaneuf also had his worst game in a Leaf uniform... all in all the Leafs vaunted D let them down quite badly after performing well early in the season.  They had a ridiculous number of shots blocked yet again, and nothing much was going right.

Florida was up next, but slight changes were made to the line up.  Kulemin was promoted to the first line, Versteeg skated on line two, and some production followed.  Tyler Bozak finally scored, but if it hadn't been for a goal that really shouldn't have counted from Colton Orr, and a nice break away marker from the Leafs only real threat, Phil Kessel, the Leafs likely would have gone to OT yet again.  Florida wasn't exactly a stiff test, particularly since they too trotted out a backup in goalie Scott Clemmensen.  Tomas Vokoun was resting up for sterner tests against tougher opponents - the Leafs really aren't an offensive juggernaut.

Then the bottom fell out of the Leafs early season rise in the rankings.  Boston is likely the class of the Eastern Conference, and so far they've played like it.  Despite missing top centre Marc Savard, they've scored goals with the likes of Nathan Horton leading up front.  They've got a healthy Milan Lucic banging and crashing, and Tyler Seguin is finding his way early on.  Patrice Bergeron potted his first goal of the year (another star breaking out against the Buds?).  

Tim Thomas got some help from the ref early on, and Luca Caputi had one ring off a post, but the Leafs couldn't BUY a goal if they had offered another 2 first rounders to the Bruins.  Despite past JFJ mistake, and Jennings Trophy Winner from last year, Tuuka Rask riding the pine, the Leafs were facing a Vezina Trophy winner who looked like one and for the first time this season they failed to score.  That's not so despicable when facing the best defensive team in the NHL last season, who have probably the league's top defensive defender in Zdeno Chara, but it still doesn't make the team feel better when they can only muster 20 shots on goal in response to 32 from another team that suffers from a lack of scoring up front.

So were the Leafs destined to fall forever? Not really likely.  They were still generally playing respectable defense, and aside from the whole not scoring thing there were some things to look on happily.  They are taking fewer penalties (3.3 times shorthanded per game - the only less penalized teams in the NHL are Chicago and Florida), and they're killing off far more of them successfully than last year (only 5 goals against while short handed - 84.8% PK rate, good for 13th in the NHL).

So on Saturday night they faced down the Rangers for the 3rd time in a month after splitting the first two games.  They still couldn't buy a goal for the life of them, but they worked their asses off and generally their game was much improved.  They allowed a goal on a penalty shot, and another on a rush up ice, but neither one was particularly horrible from a defensive perspective.  In reality those are shots virtually every NHL club will allow over the course of a season, and keeping your goals against to 2 is pretty decent.  The real problem is they made a goalie look ridiculously good yet again, only this time in Henrik Lundqvist, it was another legitimate Vezina candidate stymieing them.  

Frustrated is a great word to describe both Leafs nation and the Leafs themselves following a game in which they direct 92 pucks in the general direction of the opposition net.  Particularly when 35 of those attempts are blocked, and another 21 sail wide of the mark (although that number includes the post that Mikhail Grabovski hit as the puck slid 5 hole on Lundqvist).  Only 39.1% of the pucks the Leafs shot made it to the goalie, and 0% made it to the back of the net.  This is a problem, but the team is obviously playing with energy and the scoring slump will break eventually if they keep doing the right things.

There WAS traffic in front of Lundqvist during the game.  The Leafs had good chances, but they tended to fire into the pads or chest of the Swedish star.  They don't really have a lot of players that can fire the puck top shelf with any consistency, and maybe they need some more of that, but considering how often they miss the net, that's probably not something the coaching staff is encouraging.

Some other positives include the fact that Clarke MacArthur (28.6) and Mikhail Grabovski (27.4) remain near the top of the NHL in terms of Corsi REL on the season.  In fact they're 5th and 7th in Corsi ON in the NHL amongst forwards who have faced positive Corsi REL QoC this season.  Their peers in this measure would be the likes of Daniel Sedin, Brooks Laich, Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht, and Andy MacDonald.  They're doing some of the best puck control work in the NHL, and that's a positive.  On an even more positive note, the likes of Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi haven't done anything but help in that regard in their brief forays in a Leafs uniform this season.

The goaltending of Giguere and Gustavsson, while not spectacular yet, has definitely provided a HUGE improvement over the likes of Vesa Toskala or Andrew Raycroft in recent seasons.  Gustavsson has shot his SV% up to .921, and his ES SV% is an even better .932 (which puts him 16th in the NHL amongst goalies with more than 2 games played).  Giguere's .909 SV% is 21st in the NHL amongst qualified goaltending leaders.  This is also mitigated by the fact that the Leafs are allowing fewer shots than they did last year (26.5 per game is second lowest in the NHL).  Now if only they could find a way to produce more shots, and have less blocked (26.6 shots per game is 2nd worst in the NHL).

One way to start would be to get the forwards shooting the puck on net more.  Another argument has the Leafs sending more bodies to the net and creating havoc for opposing netminders.  I'm not sure this makes sense as the main reason the Leafs are having a lot of shots blocked is the high number of opposition defenders in front of the goalmouth.  In reality the Leafs need to work at getting the Defense moving so they can pull it out of position, and this would in reality stem from a more consistent cycle game on a line with some deft finishers.  This is where the Leafs run into trouble.  They have good cyclers in the forward ranks (although Armstrong is injured and he is the best on the Leafs roster), in the likes of Caputi, Brown, Orr, etc. and they also have skilled shooters in the forms of Kessel, Bozak, Versteeg, Kulemin, Grabovski etc.  But it's apparently rare that the two styles of play are both built into a single line.

The Leafs are shaking the lines up, likely in a hope to engender more offense.  Board work and play that sucks defenders AWAY from in front of the net will be key to the Leafs sneaking shots through from the point and perimeter.  Cross crease passes would be nice to finish off once in a while.  All of this was happening in the Leafs last game of October, but the finish part was lacking.  That should improve and the Leafs record will go right along with it.  They key will then be extending the solid stretch for more than 4 games in order to improve the team's record.