October 08, 2007

Maple Leaf Musings

Three games in and it looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending controversy is over. Wait a second, I thought it just began? I guess that's the shelf life of a goaltending controversy when Andrew Raycroft, the human sieve, is involved.

The Leafs finished week one with a 1-1-1 record, and considering they started the season with back-to-back dates with the hated Ottawa Senators, I'll take it. Three points out of six ain't bad, especially when you play the defending Eastern Conference champs twice.

Much to everyones surprise, Raycroft got the start over Vesa Toskola Tuesday night. When I heard the news, I was at first quite upset. What was the point of getting Toskola if Raycroft was going to start? I mean, doesn't anyone remember game 82 last year? The biggest game of the season, when Raycroft was sent to an early shower?

After I settled down, I realized it was the smart move. Leafs Nation was already on edge after Toskola's rough pre-season. There was no need to drop him in the pressure cooker known as opening night, especially when the opposition was the high-octane Senators. Let Raycroft deal with it. He's used to the fans hating him and showering him with boo's. Toskola would then get the start on Wednesday night in Ottawa, where he wouldn't have to worry about the crowd. It was a tough decision that Paul Maurice and the Leafs knew would be sharply criticized, but it was the right move nonetheless.

Toronto dropped the opener 4-3 in overtime. Andrew Raycroft was, well, Andrew Raycroft - four goals against, a number of decent saves, but not the "big one" the Leafs needed. Looking back, Raycroft could have really made life difficult for Maple Leaf management. He could have gone out opening night and stoned the Ottawa Senators. Had he got a shutout, it would have been tough to take him out of the lineup. But, alas, he was the Raycroft of old, the Raycroft who let in the standard soft goal and who wasn't able to hold on to a lead late in the third period.

Let's just be clear right here that I'm not blaming Raycroft for Ottawa's tying goal late in the third period that forced overtime - he had no chance on that goal. The Leafs broke down in alarming fashion in front of him, and there wasn't anything he could have done on the tying goal. I'm only blaming him for goal's one and two. They were stoppable. I know it, those who watched the game know it, and Raycroft himself knows it. His body language on the second goal (by Daniel Alfredsson) said it all. You don't look up to the heaven's in disgust the moment the puck goes past you because you've been beaten by a great shot - you do that because you know that's one you want to have another crack at.

All in all, a point against the Senators on opening night, I'll take it. Such is the life of a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

Thursday night in Ottawa Vesa Toskola got the call and he played a great game. The Leafs fought back from a two goal deficit but in the end it wasn't enough, thanks to their own stupidity. Their love affair with taking the most bonehead penalties continued and Ottawa had three power plays in the last nine minutes of the 2-2 contest. The Leafs were able to kill off the first two, but not the third. Alfredsson buried one off the crossbar - no chance for Toskola - and the Senators bagged two straight wins over Toronto.

What can you say? The Leafs simply haven't learned that they cannot take one hand off their stick and place it on their opponent - guys, that's a freaking penalty. If I was Paul Maurice, I would have seriously contemplated benching both Chad Kilger and Nik Antropov for their utter lack of discipline. If having these guys watch a game or two from the press box is the only way they'll get it, so be it.

All in all, although the Leafs did lose both games to Ottawa, the positive was that they didn't get blown out of the water. Some of the Toronto-Ottawa games are over about five minutes into the first period. The Leafs were able to skate with Ottawa and play with them. It could be argued that Toronto was the better team, in both games. The effort was there, the results weren't.

The headline in the Toronto Sun after the Leafs' 3-2 loss on Thursday night?

"Wait 'Til Next Year."

And I wonder why nobody reads the Sun. What a joke.

Saturday night brought the Montreal Canadiens to town. They were looking for revenge for last season, when the Leafs came from behind from a 5-3 deficit to eliminate them from the playoffs in the last game of the season. The atmosphere was electric. There was a palpable tension in the air. It was only game three of the season, but the Leafs needed a win. If only to quell those idiot writer's over at the Toronto Sun.

So much for revenge for those suckers from Montreal. They blew another lead, this time a 3-1 margin, and the Leafs won 4-3 in overtime thanks to a Tomas Kaberle power play goal. The penalty that put Toronto on the power play was a complete joke, but such is life in the "new NHL." I remember back in the day, a power play in overtime was a very rare occurrence. You had to practically kill a guy in order to get a penalty. Now the referee's call the slightest hooks and holds. It's a joke. There's way too many power plays in hockey today. But I digress.

Vesa Toskola only made 25 saves against Montreal, but he was phenomenal.

"The fact of the matter is our goaltender gave us a chance to win." - Paul Maurice

That's the difference, right there, between Toskola and Raycroft. It didn't matter that Toskola had been beaten three times before the third period. What mattered was that he shut the door from there on out, and made some phenomenal saves to keep the Leafs in the game. He gave the team a chance to win and the Leafs just did that. He made the type of saves Raycroft just wasn't able to make last year.

Toskola looked confident out there, and his teammates fed off it. On at least two occasions I saw a Leafs player go up to Toskola and give him a love tap on his helmet after he made a save, to show his appreciation. I can't remember the last time I saw someone do that to Raycroft. Confidence in one's goaltender can go a long, long way, and if a team isn't confident in their goaltender well, straight up, they haven't got a prayer. I said it months ago, it's not going to take superb goaltending to instill more confidence in Vesa Toskola from his teammates. Raycroft was so average last year that even decent goaltending will give the Leafs more of a fighting chance in the tough Eastern Conference. Toskola earned the confidence of his teammates, and the fans, in games two and three of the new season. He was aggressive in net and challenged the shooters. It's clear that he's all about cutting the angles and he's also solid going post-to-post. He just seems quicker in the net than Raycroft. He's got some unorthodox tendencies to his game as well and Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox put it best - he's got some Cujo in his game.

For those of you whom I haven't told, a few years ago in Buffalo, a friend and I started the "Edd-ie, Edd-ie" chant in honour of former Maple Leaf goaltender Ed Belfour. Belfour's tenure in Toronto got off to a rough start but after he stole the aforementioned game for Toronto in Buffalo, the fans fell in love with him. The next night in Toronto, the "Edd-ie" chant was out in full force. No word of a lie, we really started the chant, and I've got witnesses to back up my claims.

Anyways, my point is that I know it won't be long before Maple Leafs fans at the Air Canada Centre will be chanting "Ve-sa! Ve-sa!" I'm thinking about attending a game just so I can get it started.

Here are some random thoughts on the first three games:

- Mats Sundin's six points: A solid start to what I hope is going to be a monster season.

- Alexei Ponikarovsky's two goals: Props out to Paul Maurice for putting Poni on Sundin's line after Montreal went up 3-1 late in the second period on Saturday night. The reunited Sky Line (Sundin, Antropov, Ponikarovsky) responded with two goals. This is how it works in Toronto. The Leafs sign a 40-goal scorer in Jason Blake and he fails to light the lamp in two and a half games with Mats Sundin. In an attempt to wake up his troops, coach Maurice inserts Poni on the wing and it results in two quick goals. That's Toronto for you. Got to love it. I can't be mad though. I need Poni to light it up. At this rate, he's on pace to score 55!

- Andy Wozniewski: I'm still not sold on the Wizard of Woz. He took some really stupid penalties against Montreal. I'm looking forward to the return of Carlo Colaiacovo.

- Pavel Kubina: Kubina, listen, when you break your stick while killing a four-on-three penalty and the puck is in your zone, don't go to the bench for a new piece of wood. I'm not sure what the hell Kubina was thinking in overtime on Saturday, but he owes Toskola a steak dinner at Mendy's. Toskola absolutely robbed Montreal's Mark Streit after Kubina left the Leafs' zone to get a new stick. Turned out to be the save of the game, as the Leafs bagged the winner a couple of minutes later.

- The absence of Darcy Tucker: Anyone seen him? I don't usually agree with Don Cherry (who I think is on some serious drugs - really, how else can you explain those suits?) but Paul Maurice can't possibly keep Tucker on the third line. Cherry was incensed that Tucker's only playing 12/13 minutes a game, and I must agree. Tucker was invisible in the first three games. This guy is supposed to be a key cog in the engine here. He simply has to play more. When Kyle Wellwood returns I wouldn't mind seeing the top two lines as such:
Tucker Sundin Blake
Poni Wellwood Antropov

- A confident Matt Stajan: Two goals in the first three games - not too shabby. That's 20% of his total from last year. In light of Wellwood's absence, the Leafs need Stajan to step up, and he has so far. He and Steen seem to be playing with a lot more confidence, and that will go a long way in the Leafs' chase for a playoff spot.