In this shortened 48 game season, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in the ultimate of win-win situations. The fan base doesn’t want to have to go through another non-playoff season, but finishing in the bottom of the league will give them a solid draft pick this June.
There is no suggesting by fans nor media that this team has enough to win a playoff round if they do happen to make the playoffs, but if they continue to play as they have, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
The key is to play their young people. Glueing together some rag tag group of players in order to make a run is the old Leafs style of conducting business. The new way is to let the likes of Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer and Matt Frattin play and play alot. The only way to get them the experience they need is to let them play.
Today I am chunking the season into a bite-size six pack to summarize how they have done:
Game 1 – Opening Night, January 19th at Montreal:
When the Maple Leafs and Canadiens get together there is a lot of hype in the air; this night was no different. Starting the season with the Leafs were four Toronto Marlies in Mike Kostka, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov and Ben Scrivens all of which were playing dominant roles with the Baby Leafs.
Also making their Leafs’ debut wereJay McClement and James van Riemsdyk who were the club’s big off-season acquisitions. McClement was brought in to kill penalties and to play a checking role, while vanRiemsdyk was brought in to compliment the likes of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul up front.
On this night, Nazem Kadri got the club off and running with a nice powerplay goal over the outstretched pad of phenom Montreal goalie Carey Price who had overplayed to his left. A sweet goal for a guy who many in Toronto had on his way out of town as part of the supposed Roberto Luongo deal.
The other name mentioned feverishly as heading to Vancouver in exchange for Luongo was Tyler Bozak. He also scored a beauty of a goal on a triple slap shot play. First slap shot was from Dion Phaneuf from the point which was blocked and bounced to Phil Kessel who immediately took the second slap shot through traffic and was saved by Price and bounced onto the stick of Tyler Bozak. Have a look:
Although the Leafs did allow a goal late in the third period by Brian Gionta, they held on for a 2-1 win and a perfect season through one game.
Game 2: Home Opener vs. Buffalo Sabres
With one win under the belt, the Leafs played host to a Buffalo Sabres team in the same position. Although the Sabres’ first win was a little bit more triumphant. Thomas Vanek scored five points in a 5-2 victory over Philadephia.
The Sabres would come out of the gate swinging with a goal midway through the first period, but it was the Leafs would dominate the play with a 13-5 edge in shots.
The second period was tightly contested and while the Leafs won the shot count 8-6, it was once again the Sabres who potted the only goal on a odd man rush in which Jason Pominville would out wait Ben Scrivens to put his team up by two.
Perhaps the best highlight for Leafs fans was the fight between John Scott and Colton Orr. Scott who sits at 6’8 was looking down at the heavyweight Colton Orr, but it was Orr who won the fight and Scott who did the backing down. If you missed it, you can see it here:
The Leafs made it interesting late in the game with a Nazem Kadri goal, but Ryan Miller was on his game and shut the door the rest of the way. As the Leafs pushed late in the game, one of the highlights was the countless face-offs that Tyler Bozak was winning. Touted as an NHLer, but not a top line center, Bozak proved that at least late in the game was game.
Leafs Record 1-1.
Game 3: Taking on the Powerful Pittsburgh Penguins
The big story ahead of this game was the supposed call out of James vanRiemsdyk by head coach Randy Carlyle. Carlyle insists he wasn’t calling out JVR, but that he did expect the New Jersey native to play more to what his large frame permits and that he play more of a net presence.
In this game, he was bumped from the third line of Kadri and Komarov to join the Kulemin and Grabovski twosome on the second line. This was also a result of Clarke McCarthur getting bumped to play on the top line due to the Joffrey Lupul injury which he sustained against the Sabres.
Pittsburgh would start the scoring as Superstar Evgeni Malkin would shoot from almost the corner and would beat an unprepared James Reimer off a feed from Kid Canada, Sidney Crosby.
This was really the only glimpse you would see of this ‘supposed’ top contending team.
On this night, it was a former Philadelphia Flyer James vanRiemsdyk who would dominate. JVR did exactly what the coach asked of him, he drove the net hard and netted two goals and a helper as a result. ‘Goodbye Luke Schenn’ chants resonated in households across the country.
If you missed the game, here is vanRIemsdyk’s second goal on the night off a steal from Evgeni Malkin:
The Leafs never looked back and took the game 5-2 to move their record to 2-1. Also scoring for the Leafs were Clarke MaCarthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak. Nikolai Kulemin who was the second star had three assists. James Reimer made 28 saves in the Toronto net and despite letting an easy one in early, he came back and shut the door.
Pittsburgh is not the new Mecca of Hockey and the Penguins are not even the Mecca of Pittsburgh.
Games 4,5 & 6: Playing Against the Empire State
After going 2-1 in their first three games, the Leafs took were going to take on all three teams from the Empire State.
Game 4 – New York Islanders. An Easy Win Right?
Despite, James Reimer having a great game in Pittsburgh one night earlier. Ben Scrivens wold get the start because of back to back games and three games and four nights.
After one period, the Leafs held the early lead on goals from Carl Gunnerson, Nazem Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski. Unfortunately this was all the scoring that the Leafs would see until the dying minutes of the third when Matt Frattin scored his first of the season when the game was out of reach.
One of the hottest Marlies this season, Keith Aucoin was now playing for the other guys after being picked up by the New York Islanders. He was just one of five scorers on the Islanders including Michael Grabner and local boy Matt Moulson who each had two.
Final Score 7-4.
Leafs record moves to 2-2 and 0-2 on home ice, keeping their home fans from cheering. Maybe the fans at the ACC will start to realize that they need to make more noise, but likely not.
Game 5 – New York Rangers. Are the Rangers really 1-3?
The Rangers are my pick to win the Stanley Cup, but up until this game, the Leafs were the better of the two teams. Even with great players like Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Henrik Lundqvist and Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers were unable to click as of this point.
It was the Leafs who got on the board first & second with each of JVR and Grabovski, netting their third goals of the season. And they did it on three shots. Was this the King Lundqvist that we all expected to see? I think not.
Rangers outshooting leafs 13-3 but trail 2-0. Grabovski and van riemsdyk score their 3rd of the season. #tmltalk
— Paul Hendrick (@HennyTweets) January 27, 2013
But despite the way the Leafs started on this Saturday night, the Rangers were just too much for the Buds. The Rangers scored five unanswered goals from Brad Richards, Marc Staal, Marian Gaborik, Michael Del Zotto and Marian Gaborik again to take the dominant home win.
Both teams records moved to 2-3. This was more like the team that the Leafs’ media circus was expecting. The Leafs just didn’t have an answer when the Rangers started to press. Newly acquired Rick Nash was dominant. James Reimer was also really good even though his team succumbed 5-2 which does inject some optimism into Leafs’ Nation.
Game 6 – Buffalo Sabres Take Two. Can the Leafs squeeze one past Ryan Miller?
Already 0-1 against the Sabres, the Leafs would need to be tougher against their rival down the QEW. After Buffalo defeated the Maple Leafs on the January 21st, they have lost three straight.
The Leafs got on the board first this time on a workman’s like goal by Jay McClement. The Sabres would answer on a screened James Reimer as the mayor of Pominville made it 1-1.
The Sabres and Leafs would each net two more goals to tie it at three and force the game to overtime. Scoring for the Leafs were Matt Frattin and Cody Franson and it was Sekeras and Grigorenko who netted goals for Buffalo.
The overtime was fierce.
As the seconds ticked off the clock, it appeared as though the game would go to a shootout. But miraculously on what looked like a nothing play and with next to no time on the clock, Matt Frattin broke in off the left side and squeezed the winner through the arm of Ryan Miller. Leafs Win!! Leafs Win!! Or as Joe Bowen announced “He scores! Holy Mackinaw, What a Goal!!”
If you missed it, here it is one more time:
The Leafs go 3-3 through their first six pack of the season. As is the case, when you finish a six pack you immediately start into the next one, especially in a shortened season.
So through one eighth of the season, the Leafs are playing five hundred hockey, have balanced scoring and some optimism that this season won’t be quite as bad as the Darren Dreger’s and Nick Kypreos’ of the world had first thought.
>Three Stars Through Six Games
1) Nazem Kadri – Nazem has had success and leads the team in points through six games. Just wait until his nasty side comes out.
2) James vanRiemsdyk – If JVR uses his speed and size to play hard down low and in front of the net, there’s not many that will be able to stop him.
3) Phil Kessel – He has no goals for, but he has been a force to be reckoned with.
The Leafs will take on Washington, Boston, Carolina, Washington, Winnipeg & Montreal in their next six games. They should be able to win at least four.
For every Maple Leafs article on THW, follow @THW_MapleLeafs on Twitter