November 14, 2007

The Same Old Story

Another game against a divisional opponent and another blown third period lead. Up 3-2 in the third period, this was a game the Leafs should have won. It's disheartening. I'm starting to think Paul Maurice isn't the right man to coach this team.

It's looking less and less likely that the Leafs will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nineteen games are in the books, as are 19 points, and Toronto seems destined to miss the dance for the third straight season. If and when they do, they can look back to games all throughout October and the early parts of November - games like last night - as to why they're on the outside looking in.

The Leafs should have beaten the Montreal Canadiens last night. Straight up. After an even first period, the Leafs were the better team the rest of the way. They controlled the play, had the majority of power plays, and out shot les Habitants 26 to 13 in periods two and three.

Of course, shot totals never matter when Andrew Raycroft is in net. Yes, Raycroft (I refuse to call him "Razor") was coming off a shutout of the Buffalo Sabres, who should be incredibly ashamed of themselves, but you just know that most nights he's going to let in three or four, or more. That's how he rolls.

Sticking to Raycroft for a second, it's amazing what one shutout will do for a guy's credibility in this town. I was out for lunch with some old friends this past Saturday afternoon who were singing the praises of the mighty Raycroft, coming off his great performance the night before in Buffalo. They were calling for Raycroft to start in goal against the New York Rangers and quick to right off Vesa Toskala as the more mediocre of the two goalies.

That's what happens when you go from Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour to Andrew Raycroft. The goaltending bar has been lowered considerably. Leafs teams of the late 90's and early 2000's, with Cujo and Eddie manning the pipes, used to average eight to 10 shutouts a year. Now, it's a Festivus miracle when the Leafs get one.

One quick look at the stats, however, shows the reasoning behind Raycroft's blanking of the pathetic Sabres. Yes, Raycroft was great in the first period as he made 15 saves. But in the third period, the Leafs only allowed six shots against. That's six shots, folks. Not exactly a barrage. Now, we all know the Leafs hold any and all leads like a ticking time bomb and that they break down in the defensive zone like Ellen when the authorities take away her dog. But on Friday night, for the first time this season, the Leafs played great hockey with a lead. They limited Buffalo to only six shots in the third period and, most important of all, they helped out their goalie. That shutout was a team effort. Don't get it twisted - I'm giving Raycroft full marks because he saved 30 shots on the night, but the Leafs played a heck of a lot better that night than they have on any night in front of Toskala.

I can point out only one or two games where I would say that Toskala has performed poorly. The rest of his night's out there, he simply hasn't gotten any help from his team. I play recreational hockey in a beer league, and I'm a goaltender. I know, to some extent, how it is back there. As a goalie, you're either the hero or the goat, on any given night. But you've got to have your team help you out back there. Hockey's a team game. Toskala has been hung out to dry by the Leafs and, especially, his coaching staff. It hurts when, as a goalie, your team plays defense as well as a Timbits squad, and you're left to fend for yourself. Toskala hasn't had a prayer on half the goals he's allowed. I don't care if Raycroft has the better stats, as my friends tried to point out to me, Toskala is the better goalie, and the number one goalie. Hands down.

Back to last night and, speaking of goat horns, please pass them along to one Bryan McCabe...again. Just a horrendous pass in overtime right on to the stick of that douchebag Mike Komisarek, who made no mistake in deking Raycroft on a breakaway, slipping it five-hole to give Montreal a 4-3 overtime win. McCabe was -2 on the night and played over 28 minutes. His stat line proves that when Pavel Kubina is in the lineup, McCabe gets less ice time, is in turn more effective, and the Leafs are a better team.

God damn injuries. Kubina's out a month with knee issues and because of it Andy Wozniewski played over 20 minutes last night. Lord help us.

As for Komisarek, he shouldn't have even been on the ice in overtime. He should have been in the penalty box. He clearly punched Hal Gill in the face in the last minute of regulation time but because he wasn't wearing a Maple Leafs sweater, he didn't get a penalty. The refs called a tight game all night but once it was 3-3 with a minute to go, they put away the whistles and the Habs got away with two clear-cut penalties. If it were the Leafs taking liberties like that, they would have definitely been penalized. Everyone, including the referees, hate the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a bloody conspiracy.
I, once again, called for Raycroft to poke check on the breakaway goal by Komisarek. My brother argues that I say that every time and, although he does make a good point, I still believe Raycroft should have poke-checked. I stand by my call. Want to know why? Because it was Mike freaking Komisarek coming down the ice on a breakaway. Komisarek, who has only seven career NHL goals in over 230 games to his credit. He's a rugged, stay-at-home defenceman and Raycroft, in my humble opinion, should have been more aggressive. Part of a goalie's job is to recognize the shooter he's facing. If it's Alex Kovalev bearing down on a breakaway, by all means bust out the Bible and start praying. But it was Mike Komisarek. It should have been advantage Raycroft, and he should have poke-checked.

Here's my beef with coach Paul Maurice. The Leafs have one of the deeper teams in the Eastern Conference when it comes to their forwards. Toronto, last season, re-signed a potential unrestricted free agent in Darcy Tucker to a multi-million deal and then forked over three draft picks to acquire Vesa Toskala and former 25 goal scorer Mark Bell.

Where the hell were Tucker and Bell in the third period last night? They were plastered to the bench for all but two shifts, and I just don't get it. On one of the shifts Bell did get in the third, he orchestrated a goal with some fabulous puck control down low. On the night, Tucker saw only 12 minutes of ice time, while Mark Bell played just over five minutes and thirty seconds. What in the name of Krishna is going on here, Maurice?

When the Leafs have got a fourth line of John Pohl, Wade Belak and Bates Battaglia dressed, by all means shorten the bench in the third period. But why is the bench being shortened when Maurice has got proven NHLers, who can play, at his disposal? Why did we throw all this loot and all these draft picks to bring in these guys if they're not going to play? It's absolutely infuriating. Darcy Tucker has been an integral part of the Leafs since he arrived in Toronto and now guys like Boyd Devereaux, who I have nothing against, are playing more than he is, and it simply shouldn't be the case. Tucker is the Leafs' brawn, guts and emotion. He's got to get more ice time, and the lack of it is effecting his play.

Here's another mistake by Maurice: To start overtime, with Matt Stajan and Saku Koivu in the penalty box serving coincidental minors, Maurice sent out two forwards and one defenceman to play three-on-three hockey, while the Habs countered with the standard two defenceman and one forward. Why would Maurice not put out two defenceman, when he had a forward sitting in the penalty box? Granted, it was the lone defenceman on the ice, McCabe, who made the retarded pass to Komisarek to send him off on a breakaway, but the Leafs should have had two defenceman on the ice. The only logical explanation I can think of is that Maurice was going for the win in the five minute overtime session because he knows the Leafs don't have a prayer in the shootout. But I still don't agree with the decision. Defense first, especially when you've got Raycroft in net. Maurice has got four capable lines he can throw out there and a team that can score goals. He's got to believe in them, whether it's in overtime or the shootout.

As for Montreal's rookie goalie Carey Price, the kid is good. He's a keeper, and has an extremely bright future. He's so calm and collected in his crease, you wouldn't know last night was his first game in the hockey hotbed of Toronto. And he doesn't give up a lot of rebounds, eh? Geez. The Habs got lucky with this kid, and I'm openly jealous.

At the end of the day, the Leafs had a 3-2 lead in the third period, with 10 minutes left to play. Once again, they broke down defensively and Raycroft just couldn't come up with the big save when the team needed it most. It's not that I'm saying Raycroft didn't play well. He did. He made some excellent saves. I hate to blame him, I truly do, but I would just like him to make that one save when it's 3-2, or 3-3, and save the Leafs' bacon. Just like Cujo and Eddie the Eagle before him used to do. I guess I'm spoiled. And stuck to the past. Like all other Leafs fans.

Another point squandered. One that I'm sure will come back to bite the Leafs in the behind...