Let's get this one out of the way quickly: the Dallas Stars are a very good team. Their 9-3-0 record is not by fluke. From the second period on, they showed the Leafs why, dominating shots and possession after the Leafs took the lead. What was an almost 50-50% possession game after one period quickly titled in Dallas' favour. The Stars- particularly the top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Patrick Sharp- dominated at generating shots and chances.
While the shot and possession gulf may seem all too familiar and worrisome for those who endured years of Randypuck, Leaf fans shouldn't worry. This had more to do about what Dallas was doing right than what Toronto was doing wrong. Anyone who has seen the Stars play this year can attest they are never really out of a game, and tonight showed why. I can't point to anything systematically bad that the Leafs did in the final two frames. The Stars just kept coming in waves.
Fortunately for the Leafs, however, James Reimer was in vintage form, stopping 43 of 44 shots. He also got some run support, as the Leafs defeated the Stars 4-1.
Like most games, the Leafs jumped out of the game maintaining solid possession. Unlike most games, the Leafs got on the board first on a Brad Boyes marker. A Jordie Benn turnover found its way to Boyes in front of the net, who subsequently cashed in on an Antti Niemi rebound for the 1-0 lead. It was a full circle moment for Boyes, scoring his first goal as a member of the team that drafted him in 2000. He would almost have his second tonight, but more on that later.
The Leafs lead, however, would not last long. A Jamie Benn shot redirected off Morgan Rielly and got through Reimer to even the game at 1-1. While Benn is the scoring leader and should not be taken lightly, that was not a good goal by Reimer. Luckily for him, it would be the only goal he'd give up in a great effort.
The Leafs almost made it 2-1 on a Boyes shot, but Stars coach Lindy Ruff enacted a coaches challenge. The reason? An offside 11 seconds prior. The Leafs were in the wrong, so the goal was disallowed. Still, after one period, it felt as though that non-goal would be the dagger in this game for an anemic offense.
The Leafs, however, had other ideas. 21 seconds into the second period, Rielly puts a point shot on net, and Joffrey Lupul cashes in on the rebound to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead. Lupul would cash in again on the powerplay, finding a spot all alone in front of the net and converting a feed from Nazem Kadri to make it 3-1. The latter goal came seconds after Radek Faksa hit the post on a shorthanded breakaway that would have been the tying goal. Hockey: it's a game of inches, man.
Dallas had its chances to get back into the game, but some penalty trouble in the third period made their job a bit harder. After Reimer et al survived the onslaught, Rielly iced the game with a beautiful shot that found the roof of the net. 4-1 Leafs. Game, set, match, as the Leafs earn their second win of the season.
-The line of Daniel Winnik, Nick Spaling, and Lupul started strong, got some good jump and saw a lot of zone time early. As the game went on, they got hemmed in their own zone more often. It is hard to fault them for that, though; they had the tough assignment of defending the Benn-Seguin-Sharp line, which had a good night even if it was a tame one on the scoresheet.
-On that note, it cannot be understated how good this Stars team is. One strength of theirs is to get sustained zone time on an opposing team's mistake. I noticed this twice in the first period, on a Roman Polak pinch and a James van Riemsdyk turnover. On both occasions, the Stars spent 30+ seconds in the attacking zone.
-Suffice to say Boyes shouldn't sit anymore. While the fourth line has been good the last few games, Boyes is a much better player than Rich Clune. There's no reason he should be sitting for what is a replacement level player. Whatever message Babs wanted to send, I hope he realizes it was received.
-While the coaches' challenge was technically correct- the best kind of correct!- I worry about what it will do for the entertainment value of the game. In a time where goals are declining, there are some bad optics to seeing offense annulled due to technicalities such as offsides. As a football fan, I've seen how flags can affect the quality and watchability of the product, and it would be unfortunate to see hockey go down a similar path. I'm not sure what the solution is, to be honest.
-Nazem Kadri had a great night. He drew two penalties, and had a pair of amazing scoring chances. He was also second best on the team in possession tonight, at 52.2%. He's snakebitten right now. He's doing all the right things, and the results will follow eventually. Don't worry about Naz; he'll be just fine.
-The "top" line of JVR, Kadri, and Leo Komarov was probably the best line in the third period, particularly because they were the only ones to get sustained offensive zone time. Favourable deployment by Babs probably helped; Winnik-Spaling-Lupul got saddled against the Seguin line, matching them against the Stars' second line.
-There are not many reasons to watch the Leafs this year. Morgan Rielly is reasons one through ten. A couple good assists, a very beautiful goal, and an overall good game. Don't look now, but he leads the Leafs in points.
-James Reimer has earned the start on Wednesday. Until now, nobody has earned the right to claim the net. Reimer isn't there yet, but tonight's game at least earned him the right to another kick at the can.
The Leafs play host to the Winnipeg Jets and hockey's answer to the St. Louis Cardinals fanbase, minus ever winning anything.