I write this blog while listening to Abbey Road - you know, the album by The Beatles. Starts off with the song "Come Together". Maybe the Leafs need a little bit of that "Beatles" therapy right now.
Last night started out well for Leafs' Nation. It was exactly as the pro-Leaf pundits such as myself had predicted: A bold forecheck leading to bad penalties against the Bruins. Phil Kessel reversing the so-called "Curse of the Bruin". The Leafs, with a strong Power Play and timely goals riding a wave to victory. For the first 2 minutes of the game, all was well in Leafs' Nation.
...And then, it all went out the window.
It was as though the Bruins had read the playbook. Keep the puck deep, dominate the neutral zone. Don't take any stupid penalties. The Bruins played a near-perfect game in Game 1 last night - a veritable concern for all those with lawn chairs lining up on Yonge Street awaiting the big celebration parade. Better not get yourself too comfortable just yet.
But really, it is just one game. Can the Leafs get back into the series?
There are three things that the Leafs need to do to get back into this series.
#1: Reimer - Calm.
Down the stretch, Reimer was nails. Calm, poised, in control. He looked like a Zen Bushido Warrior cutting off Cherry-Blossoms Buds with a bo stick; that kind of calm.
Last night, he played well. But, he wasn't calm. He looked agitated and unfocused.
There is something interesting about goaltending. It isn't just about the saves you make, or the goals you let it. Sometimes, it's about how you make the save.
Reimer needs to bring his Bushido-style calm back into the Leafs' dressing room.
Take the Bruins' Second Bruin Goal for instance. Reimer looked up and at the Ref immediately claiming a high stick (it wasn't even close). He seemed unraveled after that. The Third Goal was kind of a bouncy, crappy, confidence-killer kind of goal. But, the fourth one - the errant Boychuk shot - absolutely needs to be stopped.
Reimer needs to fight through his confidence issues. Goalies' confidence issues quickly become Team Issues - Reimer has his hand on the rudder of this ship. He needs to find his calm, poised, confident place again.
Key #1: Reimer needs to find his game again.
#2: Establish a Forecheck
Well, duh. That's pretty obvious. But still, it needs to be said. The Leafs have to play in the Bruins' end.
The Leafs success all year long has been about the grinding forecheck and relentless pressure. That was completely nullified in last night's game.
The reason the Leafs were not successful in that department last night, was due to a lack of rhythm on the bench. Long shifts after getting penned up in their own end; the Leafs were their own worst enemy last night. Komarov got stuck on the ice for over 2 minutes twice in last night's game. Long shifts - especially the 2 minute type - throw everything off. Once The Leafs were FINALLY able to clear the zone, get a shift-change, the Bruins put the puck right back in, and the nightmare started all over again. It's the NHL equivalent to field position in the NFL.
So, that's a great goal. Let's "play in their end". How do we accomplish that?
Short shifts to begin the game. The Leafs need to do a better job of managing ice time. Instead of desperately getting out of the zone and changing, it needs to be the other way around. Get the puck deep (preferably behind the Bruins' goal), and change.
The Leafs need to take some very short shifts right at the beginning of the game. 30 second shifts involving a dump at the end. If the Leafs play most of the series like they did last night (2 minute long shifts in their own zone), they are dead. If they can establish that the play will be in the Bruins' zone for most of the game, they will have a much better time of it. Short Shifts at the beginning of the game is crucial in order to accomplish this goal.
Watch for quick shifts from Colton Orr, Jay McClement, Matt Frattin and Fraser MacLaren to start Game 2. The play must absolutely be tilted towards the Bruins' zone if the Leafs are to have any chance whatsoever.
#2: Play in the Bruins' zone. Short Shifts.
#3: Establish fear of the Power Play
The Power Play. The Leafs need to get more Power Play opportunities. Last night, they went 1-3 on the Power Play and early on looked dangerous. Kessel needs space, and it seems like the only chance he is going to have to get some space is on the PP.
For that to happen, the Leafs need to rough it up a little bit. Throw in some piss and vinegar. MacLaren needs to collect the puck in the neutral zone, and shoot it right at Rask, and then skate right into Rask's grill. Colton Orr needs to keep doing what he's doing. Matt Frattin has to start mixing it up.
In other words, the only hope that the Leafs have here, is to create an imbalance; a game featuring animosity and special teams. The Leafs have been very strong down the stretch on the PK, and they shouldn't be too scared of a rather pedestrian Bruins' PP. The key to beating the Bruins is to kick the hornet's nest; get the big guys angry; get them taking a couple of unnecessary penalties; give Kessel some space to work on the PP. Establishing fear of the PP is key here.
Lucic and Horton in particular have a habit of taking dumb penalties. The Leafs need to take advantage of that. In the same way that the Bruins had the Leafs on their heals last night; the Leafs need to turn the tables around, and target certain players. Muck it up a bit. A balanced game favours the Bruins. Imbalance is a key to a Leafs' victory.
#3: Muck it up. Get some Power Play time.
One final note. Phil Kessel truly is an elite scorer in the NHL. He really doesn't get the respect that he deserves. He has 52 points on the year. 52 points! 8th in league scoring. Not only that, but he is on fire. 17 points in his final 10; 35 points in his final 25. Those are big numbers. Firepower that the Bruins don't have.
It's incredible to me that most bloggers seem to single out Kessel as being a bust; while simultaneously heralding Tyler Seguin as the "ripoff trade" of the century. It's completely an unfair comparison. Kessel is better. And, he showed it in spades this year. Kessel - 52 points, Seguin - 32. Here is Kessel, scoring with the big boys in the league: E. Staal, J. Tavares, P. Datsyuk, A. Ovechkin... Ovechkin has 56 points on the year, and everyone is talking about how he might be the best player in the league. Kessel had 52 points, and everyone is saying he's a bust. What's the deal with that??
Let's look at Tyler Seguin. 32 points on the year. 66th in league scoring. Seguin is scoring at the same pace as... James Van Riemsdyk. Very good. Respectable, certainly. "Star" Status. But folks, Phil Kessel is out there every night giving it; and he is entering his name into the conversation for "Super Star" Status. Who would you rather have on your team? A player that gets 1.1 Points-per-game? Or a player who gets 0.7 Points-per-game??
This is Kessel's moment. This is his chance to prove to the World that he really is a PPG Player. The Leafs squad needs to help him. They need to get him some Power Play time. They need to establish a forecheck. They need to muck it up a little bit. Let Kessel do the rest. He wants to shake the demons so badly, you can see it written in red all over his face. Give him a chance, and watch this series turn over quickly.
So, is this series over? Not just yet. Do not despair just yet Leafs' Nation! If the Leafs can start accomplishing the small goals outlined above, they still have a fighting chance.