The Toronto Maple Leafs, in their first game since the blockbuster deal that moved Dion Phaneuf from Cowtown to Hogtown and the miracle move that brought Jean-Sebastien Giguere, downed the New Jersey Devils 3-0 behind a vintage Giguere performance. He was helped out by goals by Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel, and his familiar teammate Francois Beauchemin.
This has been a season with a number of false dawns. A hope inducing pre-season gave way to a season-crippling 0-7-1 start. The rally posted in November and December that prompted dreams of PLAYOFFS!!1 gave way to the team's traditional January swoon. However, rather than standing pat as has become the norm over the past five seasons Brian Burke, having decided that enough was enough, opened the dressing room door and rolled a 6 player grenade. Gone were three players with attitude problems in Jamal Mayers, Vesa Toskala, and Jason Blake as well as two assets who had probably been with the team for too long to separate themselves from the culture, and Niklas Hagman, a guy you would have liked to have stick around for two more years. In there place, a young defencemen in the doldrums liberated from Calgary, a former Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winning goalie trying to recover from his father's death and being separated from his goaltending coach, as well as a first rounder onto yet another team. They could turn this into a sitcom.
Greg Wyshynski termed it Opening Night: Take 2 and it certainly had that feel here and it seemed like it at the Air Canada Centre. This opening night went much better than the original one. Instead of watching high-priced signings struggle out of the gate and much-hoped for goalies cost the team the game we were treated to the new defencemen landing a couple of big hits and a fight in his first couple of shifts and a struggling goalie posting a shutout while the 3rd liner pitched in on the PK. The overwhelming odds are that this will not continue in this vein but for one night at least there was some hope. And for those curious types: 20-5. That's the record that the Leafs will likely need to make the playoffs. That's more wins than they've picked up during the first 57 games of the season.
Giguere and Gustavsson have been saying all of the right things about the former's mentoring ability. Francois Allaire calling Giguere one of the hardest working goalies he's ever met is certainly a wonderful change from the stiff that went the other way in the suprise Sunday deal. What we saw tonight was only a brief flash of play against a New Jersey Devils team that seemed to have decided that seeing Yann Danis start was a sign of capitulation that they were willing to emulate. However, it was a refreshing flash. Giguere was composed to the point where I never really thought the Devils were going to score. In fact, watching him smother so many shots while allowing hardly any rebounds made me think that it would be spectacular if he could help Gustavsson learn that skill.
As for Phaneuf, he was a +1, got a few hard shots off on the powerplay, was at his feisty best, and skated great. I don't know that I would give as much credit for the defence being more settled to him so much as knowing that every shot on goal wasn't really a potential goal. I can't remember which Sportsnet guy remarked (mostly because I was shocked to agree with them) but for a guy that has a reputation for running around I thought that, at least tonight, he played a well contained game.
There's not much to say about Fredrik Sjostrom other than to say that Freddie Shoestrings (g/t Jared) is already being lauded as a great nickname. On the PK he was composed and had a nice sequence where he kept taking away the shooting lanes, blocked a shot, and then iced the puck. At evens he skated well and picked up an assist. He was what we hoped Jamal Mayers would be at half of the price and 10 years younger.
From the advanced stats:
Corsi/Fenwick - The Leafs got beat pretty convincingly on this one. Christian Hanson especially had a pretty ugly number.
H2H TOI - Last week the ZZZ line was rampant in the Devils' win over the Maple Leafs generating multiple scoring chances per game. Last night Dion Phaneuf teamed up with Francois Beauchemin to shut them down.
EV Face-Offs - The Leafs had many more defensive zone face-offs than offensive zone ones. In part because most shots on net ended up getting swallowed up by JS Giguere.
One of the future Leafs that put on a magnificent performance was Nikolai Kulemin. Watching him tonight was like what I would imagine watching your kids grow up must feel like. Where once there was hesitancy he showed certainty. Where he would have maybe peeled off of a hit he finished it. Where sometimes he can be too peripheral on offence he was now driving to the net. Christian Hanson and John Mitchell were as effective as they've been all year and Tyler Bozak picks up his seventh point since being called up. There aren't any Crosbys in the bunch but everyone that can play for the team going forward will help.
The thing that stood out the most for me was out I felt while watching the game. I never felt any panic. When the defence had the puck (unless it was Exelby) I knew it would get moved out of the zone. The forwards were defending diligently in all phases of the game and I've already said what I thought about Giguere. For one night, the team's future was on display and it delivered. Now they just need to do it 20 more times.
Comment of the Night
AND ON THE FIRST DAY, ST DION OF PHANEUF DID DESCEND TO THE ICE OF THE CENTRE OF AIR CANADA. AND IN LESS THAN 7 MINUTES, HE WOULD SMITE THE DEVILS. AND ST DION AND THE DISCIPLES OF BURKE WOULD SEND THE FIENDISH DEVILS BACK TO THE HELLISH SHORES OF JERSEY. TESTIFY!
CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH?