Leafs 4 @ Sabres 3 OT
Before I get to some of the poor play earlier in the game from the Leafs, I am going to start with some positives first, ok!
After looking terrible in the third period against the Islanders and Rangers, the Leafs came out in the third period on a mission; don't screw it up this time!
Although Toronto relinquished the 3-2 lead it had built after getting its act together midway through the second period, the Leafs deserved to win this one. Despite the fact the game was played at Buffalo, a perennial "house of horror's" for the young Leafs, earning a rare two points tonight seemed like it was meant to be. In direct contrast to the games against the Islanders and Rangers, the Leafs struggled early on, but seemed to adapt as the game went on and played stronger and more confidently. This is a good sign for a team still trying to find its way.
Toronto was the team who wanted to win more during the final twenty minutes, and it showed. There were chances aplenty early and often for the Leafs, buzzing around the Buffalo end. A couple of near misses and pucks glancing off sticks at the last split second did not deter the boys in blue a bit. Not even a garbage goal James Reimer would surrender halfway through the period on a broken play that I could not really fault anyone for.
The good news, is that after two bad losses, the team seemed to learn from its mistakes and earn a good road win in a very tough place, at least for them in recent past.
The play by Matt Frattin at the end of overtime was nothing short of spectacular. I can never question this teams' desire to win, regardless of how their final scores shape up to be by season's end. It is still the little things that seem to keep this team from making bigger strides.
Looking at the last couple games, I have noticed that Dion Phaneuf has been a minus 7. As the captain of a young team, I see that as a glaring issue. The play late in the second period highlights my statement. It was not the first time an opposing player had jumped off the bench and slipped right between Phaneuf and his defense partner. Luckily, Reimer would shut the door on the breakaway attempt to keep the Leafs ahead at the time. Such "brain cramps" are totally deflating to a team, and when it is the team's captain who takes a nap in the middle of a close game, I just find that unacceptable.
I also noticed, early in the game again, the Leafs' making pinpoint passes to the wrong guys! Leo Komarov's terrible play on the penalty kill late in the first period comes to mind. Buffalo could not get the puck set up in the Toronto zone, and was throwing the puck all around the ice. As the puck slid to the near boards, Komarov had gotten to it well before anyone else with all kinds of time, but instead turns and tries to fire the thing down the ice like a grenade about to go off. The clearing attempt failed miserably, and after thanking the Leafs penalty killer for helping them out so graciously, the Sabres held the puck in the zone and eventually set up the tying goal.
Once again, I see Carl Gunnarsson shying away from contact in order to make a play. At 6 foot 2 and nearly 200 pounds, why in world would anyone of that stature be afraid to hit someone or take a hit. Perhaps a stint with the Marlies would do him some good. Try taking some hits from a few 19 year olds, maybe he will get the feel for some hard-nosed hockey.
Meanwhile, I see the direct opposite from Mark Fraser. The more I see the 26-year old blue-liner play, the more I like him. He is not afraid to be physical, or to get in front of a hard shot in the slot, as he did tonight saving a good scoring chance from happening. Fraser is about the only true defenseman this team has right now.
One more glaring aspect from tonight's game were the Toronto guys on the ice, working as a five-man unit in the defensive zone. Twice I saw pucks from one corner make it directly to the opposite top corner. For those who remember the grids from those math classes and graphing (sorry I am a teacher!) I was trying to figure out how in the world passes in the lower left corner can make its way untouched to the opposite upper right corner? The problem is still with the forwards, such as Frattin and Grabovski, with their sticks simply not on the ice taking away the passing lanes. Things like this are simple hockey 101.
Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves. Early tonight, the Leafs were still caught trying to do a little too much, but as the game went on, those little things started to take notice. Sticks in shooting lanes, blocked shots, getting the puck deep, etc. All good strides heading into Thursday's home game against the Capitals, another struggling team.
I will have a few more thoughts on the Leafs tomorrow, but looking ahead at the schedule, I would like to see Ben Scrivens get a chance to once again prove his worth at home Thursday against Washington. That way, Reimer will have a little extra rest for Saturday's match up against the unbeaten Boston Bruins.
• Dynamic Duo...Matt Frattin and Cody Franson. I did not realize that Franson had such a laser from the point. Frattin also made up in big ways for an embarrassing misplay on a 2-on-1 with Franson in the opening frame. He made that gaffe seem like child's play with his game-winning highlight reel goal with just seconds left to play in OT.
• Ryan Miller is actually human when not playing Toronto at the ACC.
• #45 Mark Fraser... I want my player jersey now!
• What happened to JVR tonight? The kid was on a role, but seemed to be a non-factor tonight. The only part I remember of him tonight was falling asleep and losing his man (Sekera) from the point, who slid right down the slot for a score off a great pass from Stafford.
• Three straight home games ahead. I view them as sort of a make-or-break situation to close out January and begin a long February. Toronto needs to start winning games at home now.