October 26, 2007

The Leafs Finally Deliver

It took a while - only 11 games - but the Toronto Maple Leafs finally put in a quality 60 minutes of hockey last night. They played about as perfect a road game as you can play, and I couldn't be happier with their performance, a 5-2 dubya.

I'll be honest, I figured the Leafs were in for another beating last night in Pittsburgh vs Sidney Crosby and company. The Penguins are an offensively gifted and speedy team and, for the defensively-challenged Maple Leafs, they always pose a problem. Twelve days ago the Pens peppered Vesa Toskala with 52 shots and came away with a 6-4 win in Toronto. I was fully expecting another night full of cursing at my television screen.

Much to my pleasure, the Leafs had other ideas. It seems they learned from their last game against Pittsburgh. Imagine that, the Leafs actually learning something. Shocking, I know, but it's true. Toronto learned a valuable lesson: they can't play run-and-gun hockey with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, the Leafs can score goals in bushels, but lord known they can't keep them out of their own net.

Last night, the Maple Leafs finally played a complete game of hockey for the first time all season. It was long overdue, and the team put in the type of performance I have long been expecting. This is a good hockey team, one that I believe in, and they proved it with their performance by beating a good club on the road.

For the boys in the blue and white, it was about as perfect a road game as can be played. Toronto limited the Pittsburgh offense from any clear-cut scoring chances and kept the shots to the outside. Toskala saw everything that came his way and was great when he needed to be. The Leafs even out-shot their opponent, something they've rarely done all year. Toronto was hemmed in their zone for lengthy periods on a couple of occasions but instead of breaking down so pathetically in the defensive zone as they have so often already this season, or taking a penalty, they kept their composure, played man-to-man defense, and were able to weather the storm.

I don't know if it was Pittsburgh's best effort of the young season last night but Toronto's a fragile hockey team, and they needed yesterday's game, bad. I needed yesterday's game, bad. It was a solid win and I'm likely as happy with the win as Jiri Tlusty is about it today.

Shout outs to the fresh-faced 19-year-old rookie Tlusty. His first ever NHL game was that which dreams are made of. Playing on a line with Matt Stajan and Alex Steen, he didn't disappoint, scoring two goals, his second - a beauty I might add - being the winner. This kid did not look out of place out there, and it's exciting to see a young prospect like Tlusty come up from the farm and deliver in his first game. The Leafs have never been the greatest at developing their own talent (that's got to be the understatement of the century) but #41 Tlusty looks like a keeper. I know, it's only one game, but the kid certainly looks like he's got a bright future.

Toronto played a great game in all facets last night. They won 59% of the face-offs, out-shot the Pens 27-25, and killed off five out of six penalties. Pittsburgh's one power play goal came on a five-on-three man advantage, and the puck deflected in off towering defenseman Hal Gill - no chance for my boy Vesa.

Entering the third period, which has been the Leafs worst period this year, the game was tied 1-1 and instead of imploding, the Leafs exploded. They pulled off four straight goals and never took their foot off the pedal. That's the key, they were hungry last night, and it showed. It was encouraging, to say the least.

The power play even showed some power last night, as Kaberle converted on a one-timer off a great no-look pass from Alex Steen.

Steener was great last night, with a goal and two assists. Pavel Kubina had his best game of the season, logging over 25 minutes in ice time with a couple of assists.

Mats Sundin, with an assist on Kaberle's goal, moved into a tie with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg for the league's leading scorer, with 18 points. A lot of guys said Sundin was washed up - The Hockey News did not put him in their list of the Top 50 players in the NHL - and I think Sundin has taken it personally. Jason Blake is creating more room for the big man and to all you Sundin hater's out there, how do you like Mats now? He's off to the best start to a season in his career. I've said it before, Mats is like a fine wine, he gets better with age my friends.

I'm not sure who the impostor wearing Nik Antropov's #80 is, but I'm really diggin his game right now. He's dominating out there. Antropov picked up another two assists for his sixth multi-point game of the season. He's continued his tremendous start to the season and is up there on the league's leading scorers list with 14 points. Nikky's got 11 points in the last seven games. I love this guy!

Before I forget, who could have imagined the much-maligned Antropov wearing the "A" on his jersey for the injured Bryan McCabe? Antropov has really come a long way - he's a leader on this team now - and he deserves props because he's worked hard. I'm thoroughly enjoying watching him succeed. I've always liked what the lanky Kazakh has brought to this team and it's good to see it finally coming together. It's a nice!!

Despite last night's solid victory the news on the injury front isn't so good (surprise, surprise). Darcy Tucker has got a partial tear in his knee and is going to be out at least a month, if not longer. Tucker's passion will always be missed, but the Leafs have got a lot of guys who are able to carry the load - hello, Tlusty.

Bryan McCabe is also out with a groin strain. McCabe's been brutal so far this year, and hopefully the injury played a part in his vomit-inducing play. The Leafs played their best game of the year without #24 in the lineup. Coincidence? Yes. I know the media and the McCabe haters will all say it wasn't a coincidence, but believe me, it was. This guy is important to this team and anyone who says otherwise is smoking that crack. Who would you rather have out there, McCabe or Wozniewski? It's a no-brainer my friends, and don't you dare say The Woz.

Injuries. What can I say? They were bound to happen. Guys like Anton Stralman, Simon Gamache, Boyd Devereaux and Tlusty need to continue to step up. If they do, and the Leafs play team defense like they did last night, and play Toskala in net (after Saturday's pathetic performance by Raycroft - who had absolutely no business starting that game - against Chicago, he should be super-glued to the bench), the Leafs will be alright. This team isn't as bad as they have played, or everyone thinks.

Reports in the Toronto paper's and on sports radio are already discussing the replacement for John Ferguson Jr. It's ridiculous how fast this city turns on the Maple Leafs. Toronto, with all their struggles, are sitting at .500 today after their win last night. Yes, they didn't get off to the greatest start, but we're only 11 games in here people. There's a lot of time to right the ship, and hopefully it began to move in the right direction last night.

I'm not saying everything is jolly after one impressive victory. If the Leafs play one great game out of every 11, well, pass the Pepto Bismol because they're in a world of trouble. I especially know that the Leafs have been God-awful to start this season, but like I said last week, it's still early. If last night was any indication, when this team keeps it simple, forechecks hard, and plays a full 60 minutes, they're capable of big things.

The Leafs take their road show to the Big Apple on Saturday night, and they're going to need another performance like last night's if they want to continue to stay in the win column. Right now, we've got to take last night's performance, and just beleaf...