March 24, 2008

Improbable Victories

It only took 70 plus games but, to a man, the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally pulling their weight. The Leafs went into Buffalo and Ottawa over the weekend, two buildings where they haven't had much success over the years, and came out with two improbable wins including Saturday night's thriller which I'm still pumped about.

Pumped up, you know, like Matt Stajan was after he scored to give the Leafs a 5-4 lead Saturday night. Some serious fist-pumpage and glass-bangage action, please! I totally dug how emotional Stajan was after the goal. He was dynamite over the weekend.

Hands up if you thought Blake was going to pass back to Matty on the two-on-one? That's right, no hands. And if your hand is up, put it back down, because you're lying.

And lets not forget that both wins, the 4-1 marker over Buffalo and the 5-4 triumph over those losers in Ottawa, came without the services of Antropov and Sundin. Somehow, someway, this team just will not go away, and it's a testament to the character inside the dressing room. There is no quit, only heart.

I missed Friday night's game. I heard it was a penalty-filled affair for the Leafs and that Toskala was, as usual, huge, with a 35 save performance. Stajan played 20 minutes, surely a ton on the penalty kill, and had a goal and an assist.

Saturday night reminded me a lot of last year's season finale against the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs built a lead, saw it evaporate with the snap of a finger, roared back in thrilling fashion, and then held on as only the Leafs can do. We learned a lot about the Leafs on Saturday night.

Up 2-1 with five minutes to go in the second period the Leafs suddenly fell apart. Ottawa, with two power play goals, struck three times in a minute and a half and just like that the Leafs were staring at a 4-2 deficit. It looked like the team was flat out of gas, and that Ottawa was going to kill the dream once and for all.

But Pavel Kubina had something else in mind. With just over a minute left to play he started out from his own zone, a man on a mission. He cut through the neutral zone, took the Senators line, cut through to the slot and fired a wrist shot at Martin Gerber, who allowed the juiciest of rebounds right on to Darcy Tucker's waiting stick. Into the back of the net the puck went, 4-3 Ottawa.

What. A. Huge. Goal.

A phenomenal rush by Kubina, who would be a candidate for the freaking Norris Trophy if he played the entire season the way he has the last three weeks. The goal injected life back into the Leafs, and me, and the boys came out flying in the final frame.

Before the third period was two and a half minutes old it was 5-4 Leafs. And I was going loco. The comeback was complete thanks to a determined rush and great pass by Dominic Moore, slick finish from Jiri Tlusty, and the aforementioned Blake/Stajan bonanza. Moore fought off Andrej Meszaros to keep the play alive and then fed Tlusty with a sweet pass, who tied the game at four. Dominic has just been terrific since joining the Leafs and is a +11 in his 32 games in the blue and white. The Thornhill native is clearly enjoying playing for the team he grew up watching. Can you blame him?

Like I said, guys are starting to finally pull their weight for the Leafs. Kubina has been a man possessed the last month or so. Stajan, showing incredible confidence, played a shade under 25 minutes on Saturday night and is proving his doubters (me) that he definitely has a future with this team. Steen has stepped up large in the absence of Sundin and Antropov and is four points away from his career-high of 45 set in his rookie year. Darcy Tucker, who was so god-awful in the first half of the season, is now only three goals shy of 20 on the season. Jason Blake, while he hasn't been able to finish as we'd all like him to, is still out there contributing and creating offence. The goal he scored on Friday night was an absolute beauty and his pass to Stajan sealed the deal on Saturday night. Everybody and their mother figured Blake was going to fire the puck when Stajan gave it to him, but he made the perfect return pass, and Stajan was ready with his stick on the ice.

I've been on Blake's case pretty much all season, while my brother has been a staunch Blake supporter. He always makes a point to let me know how dogged Blake is on the forecheck, and I definitely have to agree. His 48 points are still good enough for fourth on the team and for a guy who's had to deal with some serious life-altering news this season, he's done well. The goals aren't there, but he still contributes, and that's all we can ask for. And he hasn't missed a game yet, either. Blake's a trooper.

Kyle Wellwood's been pulling his weight too, as hard as that may be to believe. He got the Leafs on the board on Saturday and pitched in with an assist as well. He had four points on Toronto's successful three-game road trip.

I've got to give some props to Ian White as well. He played more that 20 and a half minutes on Friday night and followed that up with 25 and a half solid minutes against the Sens. With Hal Gill being traded away and now Colaiacovo done for the year (shocking), White's been forced into extra duty and has responded.

Even a guy like Staffan Kronwall came in and contributed. He clocked Dean McAmmond, who still skates with his head down, and answered the call when Shean Donovan came to the defense of his teammate.

While we certainly learned a lot about the Leafs over the weekend, we also learned that Martin Gerber sucks. His rebound control Saturday night was Raycroft-esque and he doesn't exude the confidence of a number one goalie. At all. The Senators are not going very far in the playoffs with a Gerber/Emery ticket in the crease.

As for Toronto's success, it's not rocket science. It has been a team effort, and that's why the Leafs sport a 12-4-1 record in their last 17 games. Their power play also has a lot to do with it. Pre-All-Star game the Leafs' power play was operating at 14.5%, good for 28th in the league, and good for a whole lot of cursing as well. Post All-Star game, the Leafs lead the league in power play efficiency with a 24.5% success rate. A better power play equals more goals. More goals equals more wins. I know, Nobel Prize type shit right there.

More nail-biting action gets underway on Tuesday night, as the Leafs begin a massive home-and-home with the Boston Bruins, who sit in the eighth and final playoff spot with 84 points. Toronto, with 80 points, can find themselves tied with the Bruins come Thursday night. Wouldn't that be something? Mats Sundin will hopefully be back in the lineup, and hopefully the Leafs can continue this most-exciting and most-improbable journey towards a playoff spot.

I don't know about you, but I'm certainly enjoying the ride.


Anonymous said...

An excellent post..astute and compehensive analysis, and a great re-cap. I missed the game but you wrote it up better than anything I've read in the media.

Preet said...

Not sure if you read Cox at all, but he wrote a heart-warming piece today about how Stajan's shaping up to be Captain material, one day. I'm not so confident about the Boston games. I'll be away on business both days, and will miss both games. Keep up the Leafs puja's though.

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