The Toronto Maple Leafs played a hockey game today. It just so happens to be the first full one I have watched this year, and probably the first I've watched intently since the team went into all out tailspin by last February.
Boy, was that like night and day.
The Leafs transitioned the puck. They created opportunities. They seldom got pinned in their own zone. They looked like a team capable of actually playing hockey. The team is playing a solid puck possession system under Mike Babcock, and it looks good.
That's not to say there are not growing pains of learning a new system. If the beginning of the second period is any indication, there will be pain. The Sens jumped out to a 3-0 lead on some pretty preventable goals. Kyle Turris being left all alone in front of Reimer on a Sens power play. Alex Chiasson on a break fresh out of the penalty box. The game took a distinctive odor, and looked to be out of hand when the Senators made it 3-0. This year, the Leafs have had the habit of playing well, allowing the first goal against, and letting things spiral out of control. This seemed no different.
The Leafs, to their credit, responded by playing some pretty solid hockey. They stormed back to tie the game on goals from Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and Peter Holland while leaving several more scoring chances on the doorstep. When Mark Stone deflected a Mike Hoffman point shot, it appeared to be all for naught.
But Daniel Winnik- the hometown boy who chose to come back to the Leafs after being traded away last season- took a beautiful pass from Brad Boyes and cashed in a backhand to tie the game at 4-4. Referee Kevin Pollock, however, did not see the goal, presumably because he was busy thinking about how he was going to set the Jays' strike zone for Game 3 of the ALDS. What ensued was an existential crisis in which 30 seconds of hockey was played that technically did not exist until the ACC sounded a horn to stop play. Yes, you read that right; Kevin Pollock did his job so badly that he became the first referee to be publicly shamed by a very loud horn.
A tie after 60 minutes- 55 of which the Leafs actually opted to play, a dramatic increase from last season- meant we got our first taste of 3-on-3 overtime. It tasted how I imagine liquid cocaine would taste. The Leafs carried most of the play and generated some five-alarm scoring chances, but could not convert. This meant a shootout was necessary. Imagine having the greatest, most exciting night of your life. Now imagine following that exciting night up with spending your entire day doing your taxes and grouting bathroom tile. That's pretty much what going from 3-on-3 to a shootout feels like.
In the shootout, the Leafs got a goal from P.A. Parenteau, while Bozak and Lupul did not convert. That would not be enough in the end, as the Senators got goals from Bobby Ryan and Hoffman to win 5-4. The Leafs played well enough to deserve a better fate, but you probably can't expect many wins when you allow three goals in under five minutes.
- Perhaps the most perplexing roster decision Babcock made was putting Leo Komarov on the "first" line with James van Riemsdyk and Bozak, but he had a pretty good night except when it came to finishing. Komarov put up a Jason Blake Special, generating tonnes of beautiful scoring chances, and converting on none of them at all. I would move him down the lineup because he just isn't talented offensively, but he at least had a decent game.
- Speaking of the top line, I was fairly impressed with their play tonight. All three players led the Corsis with 81% (!!) at even strength. They carried the play and got a lot of attacking zone time while on the ice. Considering we are talking about JVR and Bozak, this was really good.
- While he only got one assist for his efforts, Boyes had an excellent game. His pass to Winnik was great, and he made an excellent defensive play behind the Senators' net that inexplicably resulted in a penalty. I would consider moving him back to the top line.
- Matt Hunwick was generally solid, but had a really ugly moment getting clowned by Zack Smith followed by taking a bad penalty. He gets a pass because of his strong possession numbers and because Dion Phaneuf has looked better with him, but that stuff has to go.
- Despite being a defensive disaster, Lupul did not look out of place on a checking line with Nick Spaling and Daniel Winnik. HE WILL FLOURISH UNDER BABCOCK.
- Apart from one scoring chance, Roman Polak was not good tonight. He was a 45% CF despite generous zone starts and brought down Martin Marincin's numbers accordingly. I get that Babcock was trying to change things up, but I see no reason why he should play over Scott Harrington at this point.
- While the stat line may not show it, I thought James Reimer had a solid night. None of the four goals allowed were really stinkers or his fault, and only one was at even strength.
- Play of the game: an excellent stretch pass from Dion Phaneuf to Breakaway Specialist Tyler Bozak™ for the second goal of the night.
- On that note, for all the talk of "culture change" and needing to "obliterate the old core," the old guard of the team really stepped it up tonight. The guys who impressed me the most in this game were guys on the roster last season: Phaneuf, Holland, Lupul, Komarov, Winnik, and yes, Bozak. It's almost like maybe the main issue was that this was a poorly-coached team last year or something!
- While this team is leaps and bounds better in puck possession and generating scoring chances, and plays hard every night, there is no denying the talent deficiency. You're going to see a lot of hard-fought losses like this one this season, methinks.
The Leafs have five days of rest (presumably to watch the Blue Jays come back and win the ALDS) before facing the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.