I think I'm a patient fan. I like to look at the bigger picture, see trends develop and watch how a team evolves a style together over the course of a season. Only in the playoffs does a focus on the here and now really have an impact. So when it comes to lousy starts, I'm willing to give a coach a fair bit of rope. The end of November is a good time to reevaluate. This year that coincides with the end of two road trips: the annual swing out west and a mini three game trip to Ottawa, Atlanta and New York. After that, let's see where we are.
Having said that, it's clear that Quinn is under the microscope. On paper the Leafs are not a .500 team, but they are playing at .500 now. There are many reasons why the expectations at one end don't translate to results at the other, and a big factor there is the coaching style, the management of the team's resources to translate potential to results. Quinn has chosen to play wide open hockey, and this is nothing new. He has always valued a quick transition game, creative playmaking in the offensive zone and responsible defense. But the he has always had good goalies too, because putting defense third on your list of priorities means lots of chances back the other way. So Belfour and Joseph before him were hired to put the wall up and bail out the forwards who make mistakes by trying to generate goals.
This year, the goals aren't coming and the goaltending has been inconsistent, so the Leafs are losing games. Saturday's pummeling from the Flyers was just one of those games that you have to write off and pretend never happened. All teams go through those ones. To the Leafs' credit they pulled out a defensive minded victory against Carolina last night which shows that the team CAN be coached after all.
But (it's a big but) there are some slumps in the works at the moment. Sundin needs to be in the game more. I'd like to see Kaberle pick it up a bit too as well as Mogilny. Klee and Stajan have been nice surprises in the early going, but the war horses need to get the job done.
But (okay THIS is the but) there is one thing that is bothering me at the moment, and that is the lack of fight in these guys. The Buffalo game was appalling as was Saturday's loss, anomaly or not. And the inability to hold a lead in the third period is really disturbing. It is these larger team questions that Quinn needs to address, and he needs to do it soon before the fans and the management concludes that he's out of ideas.
What worries me, although I'm not going to say it definitively at this point, is that he truly is out of ideas. Can Quinn develop a style that matches his opponents? Will he try matching lines for a change and getting more time for the bigger guns? Will he sit Belak, whose extended stay with the big club reminds me of Anders Eriksson's tenure?
A nice run of three wins comes to an end as the upstart Thrashers eke out a huge comeback to take two points out of overtime at the ACC.
It's funny to put this game in perspective. After a slow start, the Leafs get some momentum with wins over Dallas, Phoenix and Washington. They get McCabe and Mogilny back in the lineup, and fire up some big offense. They started this game the same way, with Belfour making glorious saves off Ilya Kovalchuk and the dangerous Marc Savard to keep the Leafs in charge. Tom Fitzgerald comes out of the closet as a speedy playmaking winger and the Leafs sit pretty with a 2-0 lead.
Then late in the third period, Atlanta presses around the net and within 22 seconds, the game is tied. Belfour starts losing his mind as the crease is getting awfully crowded and the Leafs are exhibiting an unfortunate tenancy to collapse back on him. This gives the Thrashers all kinds of room to move. While the Leafs blew a huge power play chance in overtime, Atlanta pushed the Buds back, creating enough open ice that Marc Savard had an easy time of pocketing the winner on a shot that Belfour should have seen. Fourteen seconds to go, and the Leafs fade into ignominy.
And that would be the story that some media pundits tell you. While third period collapses are bad news, they aren't everything, and a steadily improving team is what the bigger picture is all about. It's unlikely to me that this game represents a big blow to the Leaf's confidence. It certainly would have been worse if it had happened against Phoenix when the team hadn't yet turned itself around, but I sense that the last week has gelled the crew together and it's this game, a loss to a young, hot team, isn't as much of a disaster as many think.
With games coming up against the Sabres, Philly, Carolina and Pittsburgh, the Leafs should have a chance to keep their pace going ahead of the western road trip later in November and build on the confidence from the streak.
What is serious though, is the loss of Nik Antropov, whose shoulder came undone again. This time it could be serious, especially if it requires surgery. If that is the case, we won't see Nik until the spring.
Karel Pilar is clear to play now which means the Leaf defensive corps is back to full strength and guys like Marchment can pick up their game under fear of sitting some out. Work on the power play and defensive zone coverage is probably what the practices are all about this week.
I have a sneaky little laugh that comes out after I watch the highlight reel from a game like this. An immensely frustrating first two periods turns to gold as the Leafs come out a new team in the third and streak past Dallas for a great road win.
In fact it was two different games, except for the first minute when the Nieuwendyk line set their tempo. Other than that it was fairly safe hockey from both sides. Dallas scored their only goal in the second when Jackman had a huge defensive gaff, leaving joining three Leafs on the right side of the net while Modano was open on the left side. With Belfour sprawled after making a great save, big Mike had an easy job to notch the opener.
But a funny think happened. The Leafs got a goal off a point shot from the solid Ken Klee that was tipped by newcomer Alexi Ponikarovsky who brought a new idea from the press box: stand in front of the net and tip things in. Somehow, during the second intermission, a consensus was reached that this would be the offensive strategy for the rest of the game and so the Leafs repeated, next with Sundin blasting one from the top of the circle and Nieuwendyk finding the deflection. That goal came after some gritty play with great chances by Sundin, Tucker and Nolan, who hit the post.
With 6:35 left to go, the Leafs had almost too much time and not enough lead. In other games, I was fully expecting them to cave under the pressure of six attackers, but with a nice save from Belfour and some great defensive play from the Nieuwendyk line, the Leafs got the insurance marker when Reichel managed to hit the empty net and lock the game up.
Now the lesson here, boys, surely must be that you must shoot the puck. After only managing nine shots in the first two periods, they added 15 in the third, including three from Nieuwendyk. That was the difference, and the unrelenting pressure and sheer numbers, means some of those are going to go in. Its simple hockey but its what broke them out of the long slump last year, and it must surely point the way to better things this fall.
As a note, the Stars were only held to 16 shots. The Leafs D is doing a good job restricting the shots from the opposition. Except that in New York, 30% of the shots went in. Anyway, Phoenix should be a less difficult test, and with the Leafs already assured of a .500 record on this road trip, the team has to be feeling upbeat.
PS Reichel was outstanding again in the face off circle, as was Matt Stajan. Stajan has playmaker written all over him and he is proving everything his scouting reports said about him. It will be a pleasure to watch him evolve.
Even the most rosy eyed Leaf fan will have a hard time finding something to like about this game, but Im going to try. A blowout by any other standards, the Leafs did not play too badly as a whole. Belfour had an off-night and that reflected in the score, and for me the alarming news is that it confirms just how dependant Toronto is on their goaltending.
Out of the gate, the Leafs charged well and some freaky goals one form a short angle and one off a weird bounce behind the net that fooled Belfour conspired to erode the advantage the Leafs had built up with continued forechecking pressure. With Roberts getting a nice goal off a jam play to pull within one, the Leafs went into the dressing room looking all right.
The second period however, proved to be one where the good players unraveled. Ric Jackman, who has been solid all year, and was actually better than his numbers said he was tonight, gave the puck away to Czerkawski in his own zone and he ripped it past Belfour, the first of three nice goals from the Islanders. Following a Tom Fitzgerald penalty, the Leafs lost their focus and gave up another a Kvasha was left unhassled in front of the net. That goal sent Belfour packing and Tellqvist came in to try to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately he later let in a goal off Mike Peca who was sprung by Jason Blake out of the penalty box and who beat the young Swede on a nice deke.
Renberg was sent off in the second with an injury and the Leafs lines were in shambles after that. The bright spot was Matt Stajan and Nathan Perrott who were joined by Antropov, Domi and Nolan at various points. Stajan got his first of the year off a lovely feed from Nolan late in the third, but the game was already out of reach then. Some physical play followed on in this period too with Marchment standing up Bergenheimer and tangling with Goddard who earlier had fought Domi.
Quinn revamped the defensive lines tonight, but Marchment and Kondratiev both looked terrible. Maxim has overstayed his welcome and rumours of McCabes imminent return on Saturday must have everyone breathing a little easier. Kondratiev needs to work on his game in St. Johns and get used to the pace. Hell be a decent player, but not yet.
Sundin continues his woes although he had four shots tonight and was outstanding again in the face off circle. In fact the Leafs outplayed the Islanders for long stretches of the game early on, but the conversions didnt come and the Isles mad better use of their opportunities. It was a strange blow out, not overly worrying, but not very reassuring either.
Power Play Tucker Reichel Nolan Roberts Nieuwendyk Antropov Roberts Sundin Antropov
Penalty Kill Antropov Sundin Tucker Nolan
No one was happy with the state of affairs in Leaf-land coming into tonights game against Montreal. The practices have become edgy and the lines have been juggled. The Leafs havent played as badly as people are saying, except for their opener when a disciplined Montreal defensive style shut them down. The Washington game started slow but they dominated. Likewise in New Jersey where smoother ice, and two seconds might have made the difference.
But after tonights great tilt in Montreal, a road shutout for Belfour, the Leafs have gone from winless in three to undefeated in three, and it seems to me that the momentum is heading in the right direction.
Toronto hasnt played a game this year with the crowd so jacked up. The game started with incredible energy from Montreal and the Leafs' immediate challenge was getting a handle on the pace. An early Habs penalty, the first of many, helped the Leafs slow it down and soon enough the crowd was back in their seats and the game could progress a little more surgically.
In fact surgery was a good word for what was happening out there, with numerous stick fouls from the likes of Ward and Hossa. Tucker, Reichel and Domi all took high sticks to the head and Jackman lost two teeth. The slashing seems to be back in the game.
None of this seemed to affect the play of the warhorses though, and Jackman especially found his feet and got the only goal in the first period. That was his first goal in 70-odd games. He last scored on December 31, 1999. His offensive style, and his nice fit with Kaberle on the blue line, has finally translated into a goal. If he keeps this up, he might actually blossom this year.
In fact this game was something of a coming out party for a lot of the Leafs, although there are still some notable names NOT on the score sheet. Montreal was held to 15 shots, but each one seemed like a good chance, including one from Dackle from three feet out on Belfour late in the third which Eddie stopped with a remarkable move to his left. That was one of the few truly abhorrent defensive breakdowns. The rest of the time, Klee, Jackman, Kaberle and Berg played well. Marchment and Kondratiev were the weaker pairing, with Kondratiev still showing that hes very much beatable with speed.
The forwards seemed to stick by a strategy of thoughtfully targeting dump ins and following up with tenacious forechecking. Up front, Belak was finally benched and Nathan Perrott took his place on a line centered by Stajan and supported by Domi. They acquitted themselves well, with Perrott doing the forechecking. That role was also handled by Nieuwendyk, Tucker and the deliciously good Nik Antropov, who moved onto Sundins wing. I thought the new line combos worked well, and Sundin and Antropov were an engaging PK pairing, with Antro having a terrific chance in the third period, as he found open ice and bowled into Theodore shorthanded. Sundin generated some great chances too n the very next penalty kill. They are looking more like last year in that respect.
But by far the best player on the Leafs last night was Robert Reichel. He seemed to be everywhere and his line was outstanding. Towards the end of the first period Reichel set up Tucker for the best chance at that point in the game and he followed it up with some great defensive plays in the third period to knock away some chances. His line was out there for the heart stopping last 30 seconds and Reichel missed a chance at the open net in the dying moments of the game.
Reichel as a two-way playmaking centre? We perhaps always hoped he had it in him. He seems increasingly comfortable in that role, and his play has been consistent this year so far, one of the few bright stars along with Antropov and Belfour in the early going.
Finally credit where it is due in the face off circle. The Leafs have been dominating face offs this season and last night was no exception. Reichel won 79% of the 15 face off-s he took, including all three against face off king Yannic Perrault. Matt Stajan went 5 for 6 and the Leafs as a team finished with 65% of the pucks won off the draw. That is very impressive and is going to go a long way to establishing a controlled offensive game for the Leafs.
This was an intensely frustrating game. The Leafs were manhandled through the first period and were lucky to come out only a goal down. They only had three shots, and spent much of the time buzzing around their own zone staying away from the likes of Gomez and Elias. The Devils played a possession game for the first, scoring eventually when Belfour gave the puck away at the point and Rafalskis subsequent shot bounced off of Pandolfo and in.
If the Leafs were going to make anything happen they needed to do two things: generate some more energy on the attack and keep the New Jersey forwards outside and away from the crease. In the second period they did this by and large and the more tenacious play was rewarded with two goals. The first resulted from Tom Fitzgerald throwing the puck on the net from a sharp angle to the left of Brodeur. Marty didnt jam up the short side and Antropov, standing right there, poked it in. The second goal was a beauty. Stajan, who has the makings of a real playmaker stole the puck off Niedermayers stick, fed it to Tucker who spun and blasted a shot past Brodeur. The Leafs took the lead and started playing more defensively. They generally kept the Devils forwards at bay and created a few more chances for their own offense. The New Jersey scorers, traditionally stingy with awarding shots, recorded only one shot in the last 28 minutes for the Leafs, but in truth the game was closer than that.
New Jersey tried to get something going, and the Leafs would sit back and wait before seeing a small hole open up. Icings, missed passes and mistakes caused by the really lumpy ice all provided the Leafs with a few more chances to score an insurance marker, but it never came.
Overtime resolved nothing, except that three games into the season the Leafs have blown third period leads in two games that they otherwise played well in, and are still looking for their first win of the season.
Nothing gets easier as the road trip continues to Montreal on Saturday.