Jekyll and Hyde Maple Leafs Battle Red Wings Down to the Wire
Happy Holidays all you hockey (Maple Leafs) fans out there!
Let me start with some of the good in tonight's Original Six match up between the Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings at the ACC...
After a horrible first period from the Maple Leafs, a team that played with no energy or emotion, the team did wake up from the dead and ended up storming back from an early 3-1 deficit to eventually taking a 4-3 lead on a David Clarkson crash-the-net style goal in the third period.
Clarkson's line of Nikolai Kulemin and Jay McClement was easily the best line for Toronto and played each and every shift as if it were game seven of a playoff series. Clarkson has finally become a difference maker as of late and Kulemin has turned into perhaps the best two-way forward on the team in the absence of Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland. I would have preferred Kulemin to shoot that puck in overtime and he probably wishes he had now. Things are not going to work out well when trying to pass the puck between four legs of the other team. Still, this line continues to be a bright spot in recent games, but with such defensive unaccoutability by many other forwards on the club, perhaps Carlyle should think about putting Clarkson on a line with Kadri and Kulemin on a line with van Riemsdyk?
It has been a complete battle for this Maple Leaf squad to win games since late October let alone earning a single point. At least tonight, the Leafs found that edge it had before by not giving up and battling their opposition down to the final shot. Fortunately, their opposition tonight happened to be another team struggling to win games all season as well.
Toronto is still alive in the playoff race, thanks to several other teams like them who are just struggling mightily to hold onto leads or finding ways to lose. Detroit and Ottawa are two teams that come to mind. Both teams should be much better than the standings indicate, but for some reason find themselves in even worse shape than Toronto. In the end, I am sure that the Red Wings will be fine, but not so sure about the Senators. Ottawa keeps finding ways to lose, and thus helping Toronto stay alive each day.
Now back to some of the negative aspects of tonight...
Toronto's top line of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri were bad pretty much the entire night. I am tired of seeing these guys and some others included, play each night like it's a ray hockey night at a small shack in the middle of nowhere with freezing cold locker rooms with kids home from college on Christmas break. Randy Carlyle must understand that he truly doesn't have a top line at the moment. He doesn't even have any set lines either. For now, these lines need to be shaken up a bit at least until Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland return. Kessel and van Riemsdyk played a very irresponsible game tongiht, and as top "go-to" players that is just plain unacceptable.
Van Riemsdyk's lazy neutral zone play cost the Leafs the first goal against, which was also thanks in large part to a terrible, ill-timed line change by van Riemsdyk and his line mates Kessel and Kadri. Looming at 6 foot 3 and 200 pounds, JVR should be a force to be reckoned with at all parts of the ice. Instead the big winger is seen standing at the blue line while the rest of his outmanned defense runs around playing two on three and sometimes two on four hockey as they are pinned down in their own end. The same goes for Kessel, as all he wants to do is get a pass after his defense work their tails off and hope to come up with the puck and be set free on a breakaway. Guess what Phil, this is not NHL hockey. If that is what you want to do, then quit the NHL and go play pick up games at a tiny, dirty, freezing rink at 11 pm on a Friday night like me! That may be a little over the top, the rink I play at is actually pretty nice and has a cozy, homey feel to it.
Back to the game...
With a 4-3 lead with about six minutes to go, Kessel cannot man up and win a battle along the boards with Kadri behind him not sure where to go. Kadri does not back up Kessel, van Riemsdyk is at the opposite side of the ice standing around looking pretty while the Red Wings make the play along the boards, get the puck to the goal and score on a rebound with the defenders chasing again. So after the team had risen from the dead, finally deciding to work hard and play with some emotion, Toronto's top line gives up the tying goal on a very typical, lazy, anti-team commitment play that ends up costing the Leafs another possible win.
Until the Maple Leafs finally stop playing like rat hockey players, and instead take the game one zone at a time, then this group will never be able to play like a playoff team. Last season, was just a teaser. And it should be seen as such despite the strong play from the Maple Leafs. Once again, we are seeing the real Maple Leafs right now, and it isn't pretty. What is even worse, we have a team that has the talent and the scoring skill that refuses to play as a team for 60 minutes and instead finds ways to lose and just give up goals to teams that don't even have to work hard to get them.
I am going to stop trying to compare this team to the other team I support in Los Angeles. They will never be the similar team and sure as heck don't and won't play the same style as the Kings play in. The Maple Leafs need to continue to attack and keep skating forward against their opposition and must use all five guys on the ice to do it. Toronto is simply not going to be able to rely on their goalie every night and guys like Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin to maintain control and lead the attacks. But there is no excuse for guys like Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Lupul and Mason Raymond to not get back and help fill the defensive zone and help their beleaguered defensive core. There is such a large gap between the defense and the forwards, which simply allows for all of the chances on goal against James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. That gap needs to be better controlled. Teams are having such an easy, almost effortless time at getting passes and shots off in those dangerous areas. Once again, I expect professionals to be able to understand what needs to be done in order to first and foremost keep the puck out of your own net. To my dismay, the Maple Leafs are one of the easiest teams to play against and that must change.
Forwards like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown did not turn into such solid two-way players overnight. It took some time, commitment and some practice. But the idea here is that you must try it. Right now, I just do not see several of the key players in blue and white even try it. Until they do, these type of games will continue for a long time.
Before I sign off, I must comment on Carl Gunnarsson. The 27 year-old defenseman has been in the league for five seasons now, and I still think he is the one of the softest, if not softest defenseman in the entire NHL. His weak, careless giveaway and lost battle against the boards Thursday evening against Phoenix cost his team a shot at a regulation victory and tonight, stops with the puck behind his own net, and gets caught and coughs the puck up in front of Bernier late in the game. I still cannot understand what this organization sees in the 6 foot 2, 192 pounder from Sweden. Instead, he plays like a 5 foot 8 junior college kid who is afraid to make a play.
Like I have stated before, as long as Toronto sees Gunnarsson as part of a top defensive pairing, this team will never have what takes to win key games in the playoffs. Gunnarsson sure doesn't have what it takes either. I would rather take my chances with Paul Ranger on the ice. But with this season about to hit the fan altogether, Nonis will have plenty of time this off-season as his work will for sure be cut out for him.
Morgan Rielly To Stay with Leafs
In my opinion, this is a bad move by the organization. Rielly has been playing fairly well, much better than any other 19 year-old in his first NHL season for that matter. But this team is going to struggle with or without him for the time being. I would have rather seen him be sent to Team Canada for the World Junior Tournament and be given a chance to perhaps be the captain or be offered some leadership role on the team. The days away from the Leafs would be beneficial for the kid to have some fun and play some games in which there will be plenty of emotion. I bet it would have done him a world of good and the same can be said about his game. If Canada wins that tournament, it would have been interesting to see him return to Toronto after winning a gold medal. Instead, Rielly is "chained" to the Leafs clubhouse and must sort out his game along with the rest of the struggles of a fragile hockey team that is going nowhere fast in what perhaps is another lost season.
Misleading NHL.com Headline...
This is the problem with shootouts. A headline on NHL.com right now reads "Wings beat Leafs in Winter Classic Preview". Nothing can be further from the truth. Regarding the headline, it sounds as if the Red Wings had flat out beaten the Maple Leafs tonight in a sixty minute game. When in actuality, Detroit had relinquished a 3-1 first period lead, and even fell behind the Maple Leafs 4-3 in the third before tying the game up with six minutes to go. The game went to an exciting overtime session to the shootout in which the Red Wings beat Jonathan Bernier both times earning a shootout point.
This game was a shootout win for the Detroit Red Wings. They did not "beat" Toronto persay. How stupid and robotic of the hockey writers must be to make a headline like that and for the editors from the NHL letting that kind of headline stand. It is totally misleading and should be fixed. Shootout wins and losses should have its own columns in the standings. Enough of shootout wins being called wins! They are not! For those who believe it is no big deal, then they are compromising the integrity of the game.
As a hockey fan, this is just one of those "pet peeves" and makes me angry. Moreover, the silly shootouts make it look like Toronto is doing well. The current NHL standings, which include shootout wins as normal wins have the Leafs sitting at 18-16-4 when in actuality, the team should be 13-17-8.