Look, I enjoy a Leafs win just as much as any of you, but the fact that the Leafs have already allowed over 40 shots in 9 separate outings should tell you that not enough has changed between last year and this one for the Leafs to really call themselves 'improved'. Simply put, the Leafs came up with a Randy Carlyle Special tonight, capitalizing on the Stars' defensive breakdowns and relying on fantastic goaltending from Jonathan Bernier to close out the evening. To be clear, I'm not saying that this win was undeserved, but against a team with a more consistent commitment to defence, this game doesn't end so well.
Carlyle decided to switch (demote?) James van Riemsdyk to the second line to skate alongside Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli, which, as you might expect, was the easily the Leafs' best line this evening. The possession stats don't exactly tell such a clear-cut story, but what did you expect? Did you really think that Phil "The Thrill" Kessel was going to wind up with a negative Corsi Rel in a game like this? Phil had a great game, and Bozak had a few good looks, but if I had to pick a trio that stood out, it was easily Santorelli-Kadri-JvR.
Unquestionably the best Leafs player tonight was Jonathan Bernier, who did absolutely everything a goalie could do to earn a shutout. Sportsnet commentators seemed to be of the opinion that the Stars didn't mount enough of an attack over the course of the game, but the way I saw it, Bernier was simply so positionally sound that he made a large number of extremely difficult saves look relatively easy. He smothered rebounds and read plays like open books. He got lucky on a few occasions, it's true (Tyler Seguin hit the post 3 times), but there is always a certain amount of luck involved in earning a shutout.
All in all, this was a fun game to watch. Neither team was overly concerned about playing defence, and there were a number of great chances on net at both ends of the ice throughout the entire game. This is all well and good for fans, but I'm sure that Carlyle is tearing out what remains of his hair over some of the plays made tonight by both the defence and the forwards. Really, there were missed assignments all over the place. Hey! Two points!
A few other notes on the Leafs' game:
- Carlyle used the 4th line for a couple extra shifts when the game was clearly out of reach. I wish he'd do that more often and give the Leafs' top players more breaks so that they aren't completely worn down by February or March. The Leafs' 4th line isn't often great in terms of possession stats (though they were average by Leafs' standards tonight), but at least they pose more of a threat than in the days of Colton Orr and Fraser McLaren.
- Kadri nearly had a great game. With the puck, his play was excellent, and he made a few highlight-worthy passes, and managed to score a quick goal in the first to put the Buds up 1-0. Detracting form these efforts were the two minor penalties he took which might have been costly against a team with a better-organized power play. Moreover, his end-of-game Corsi totals look ugly.
- Maybe the rest of you saw things differently, but I thought Richard Panik played one of his better games as a Leaf tonight. He dropped back for pinching defenders quickly and made the kinds of plays that often lead to promotions (i.e. "safe plays"). Of course, he was on the ice for under 4 minutes, so it would be nice if he could replicate this defensive responsibility for longer, but then, I'd also like to wish for a pony.
- Dion Phaneuf had a very Dion Phaneuf-like evening. He got bombarded in his own end, laid a couple great hits that lots of people will remember, and was pretty dangerous offensively. I don't hate him as a player, but I do think that the Leafs should trade him while he still has some value. Get out from under that contract while you can!
- Peter Holland continues to prove me right. I've said for some time that I'd hand the Leafs' 1C job to Kadri and let Holland challenge him for it. Holland has done fantastic work in basically every role he's been offered, whether it's on the penalty kill or playing the shutdown role as a 3rd line C. Holland still has more to give, and that's great news for the Leafs.
- Stephane Robidas also continues to prove my earlier concerns correct. I know that this was an emotional game for him because he was playing his former team, but he was once again simply out-gunned when players skate around him on the outside. It would be great if the Leafs could get something for him in the off-season before his contract becomes so burdensome that it's out of the question.