So it appears as though the “real” Toronto Maple Leafs have descended back to earth and have taken to the Air Canada Centre ice. Or at least that’s what most Leaf-haters would tell you amid their laughter and delight. The Leafs, after having smashed through the gates to start the season 4-0, have since gone 1-4-1 and have been shut out the past two games.
With its recent struggles, this team eerily resembles the squad of yesteryear that often outworked and outplayed teams only to lose by two or three goals. Despite the offensive pressure, the combination of suspect goaltending, lethargic special teams and the inability to bulge the twine proved too much for the talent-thin Maple Leafs of 2009/2010 to overcome. The 2010/2011 version, although still talent-thin, have a vastly new look and new attitude to go along with a new captain and a stronger goaltending tandem. Hence, the much better start.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same it would appear. The two most recent losses, both 2-0 shutouts to Boston and the New York Rangers respectively, have had the exact same storyline. Although the goaltending and special teams have been far better than last year at this time, the same case of offensive pressure with little results has occurred and you can almost see the confidence slipping away. The current team skating in blue and white is night and day in comparison to the one that took to the ice in the opening four games.
So the question I ask is this: Will the real Toronto Maple Leafs please stand up? Are you the initial team we watched that had confidence, made smart decisions with the puck and scored goals when it was needed? Or are you the most recent team we’ve seen that makes poor decisions with the puck, causes turnovers in all three zones and is snake-bitten around the opposing net? Maybe you’re a hybrid of both and are stuck somewhere in hockey purgatory, a young team trying to find an identity in a league where parity is the highest it has ever been. Personally, I think the team is closer to the one we saw in the first four games of the season, rather than the one we’ve seen in the past six. A few things have to happen for them to regain that confidence and play like they did to open the season.
First and foremost, they have to get a few garbage goals. They have to crash the crease and get one to go in off a skate, a leg, a head or anything else legal. When a team struggles to score goals, each individual takes the frustration upon himself and tries to do too much. He tries to make cute plays and shoots from the perimeter with zero traffic in front of the net. You won’t score that way, especially on the likes of Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist. The team as a whole has to start making smarter decisions with the puck, from the defense on out. You can’t shoot when there are three people standing directly in front of you, causing the puck to ricochet off a leg and bounce out to center ice.
The defense corps has to be much better and start living up to the notion that they are one of the strongest back-ends in the NHL. They have to play more sound defensively and get the puck to the net while manning the points, whether on the power-play or five-on-five. I’m primarily talking to you Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin. Defensive breakdowns that lead to goals will crush a team that already has confidence issues, so the two afformentioned players have to play smarter, not get caught out of position and stop turning the puck over so much. Dion Phaneuf, while still a force on the ice, is nowhere near what he was in his first few years in the league. For the Leafs to be successful in any way, he has to turn back the clock and get back to being the player he was three years ago.
Francois Beauchemin was more effective playing less minutes and skating in the shadows behind Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger in Anaheim. But now, in more of a spotlight with a bigger role, his deficiencies are glaring. He gives the puck away far too much and makes errant passes through the neutral zone. Mike Komisarek’s ice-time has been reduced this season and he is actually a more effective defenseman because of it. He has been solid and less noticeable, which is sometimes a good thing if you’re a defenseman. He has also played with much more discipline this season, not taking dumb penalties and putting the team at a disadvantage.
Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle are playing some of the best hockey they have ever played, both individually and as a tandem and should be consistently among the team’s top three ice-time leaders, along with captain Phaneuf. The number six d-man on any given night could be either Brett Lebda or Carl Gunnarsson. It seems Ron Wilson wants to use Gunnarsson against the bigger stronger teams and Lebda against the faster more skilled teams. While I understand that concept, I also know it works best when both players are playing at the top of their respective game. Gunnarsson has played poorly from the start of the exhibition season, possibly suffering from a Schenn-like sophomore jinx, while Lebda is coming off a shoulder injury and has been slow to get back to form. If either of them is going to get better and become more dependable on a night-to-night basis, they have to play on a night-to-night basis. So Ronnie, pick one guy and run with it. Personally I’d send Gunnarsson down to the Marlies to gain some confidence and let Lebda become more accustomed to the team by playing every night.
Having said all that, hockey is a game of inches. Sometimes, all it takes is a shot an inch or two to the left or right and your fortunes can turn around instantly. Confidence truly is that fickle. Hopefully, over the next few games, the Leafs will get one or two of those shots to veer left or right, help them get a win or two and gain back the confidence they started the season with. Maybe then the mistakes will decrease, or at least be less noticeable. After all, when you’re winning, it’s easy to be positive. On a beautiful sunny day, a dark cloud here or there won’t bother you. Here’s hoping its overcast in the Senators’ dressing room Tuesday night.