February 10, 2013
A Tale of Two Cities; Leafs Dressed for Battle, Kings Relinquish the Sword
In December of 2011, I took in my first Maple Leaf game in Toronto against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. At the time, the Kings had been struggling mightily and had just fired their coach Terry Murray and had yet to replace them with Darryl Sutter. John Stevens was the interm coach at the time, and after the Kings had held off the speedy Leafs in overtime, Dustin Brown was able to light the lamp on the final shot of the shootout against James Reimer.
The game was symbolic for both teams, as the Kings continued to play hard-nosed hockey, holding teams in check and found ways to win all the way to June 11 as they celebrated with the Cup on Staples Center ice. The Leafs on the other hand, soon went into a spectacular slide, finding more exciting ways to lose each night and ended up finishing second to last ahead of another struggling original six club, the Montreal Canadiens. Reimer played a particularly strong game in net that night, making nearly 40 saves against a point-attack onslaught brought on by Drew Doughty and the Kings. But soon after that, Reimer once again fell victim to more concussion-like symptoms and was never the same.
Now back to present, where the two teams have almost taken a complete reversal of fortune. James Reimer is back, healthy again and playing up to his full potential as he had shown in his debut late into the 2010-11 season. On top of that, most surprising is that the Maple Leafs have become the team that is tougher to play against. Last night's skill and strength domination of the Canadiens is a great sign that the Leafs are becoming a team to be reckoned with similar to LA last season. And it is not just their speed and skill, it is the physical presence that all of a sudden has emerged with the likes of Leo Komarov, Korbinian Holzer, Frazer McClaren, Colton Orr and everyone else who is stepping up to the plate.
So far this season is too small of a sample to make any judgments of teams, especially for the Leafs on this past three game road swing, but I have to agree with some of the comments of the post game shows last night after the 6-0 win. To them, the Leafs are starting to turn into the team that Brian Burke envisioned and what new coach Randy Carlyle prefers. I have criticized the toughness of the team in the past, and more recently the softness of Dion Phaneuf, who has literally overnight became the tough defenseman again as he was when he first came up with Calgary. Will that last? Only time will tell. But the next 36 games should help answer that question. So will so many other questions, hopefully. And most of them, we hope will be answered positively. However, the most important question will be if this team is ready to compete in the playoffs. In order to answer that, this team will need to continue its success from the road onto home ice. A good start to that will come tomorrow against another tough opponent, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Now to the defending champion LA Kings who have been the most disappointing team thus far this short season. Personally as a fan, I don't care how many times this team loses from now until April. I don't even care if they make the playoffs. Of course it would be pretty bad if they didn't, but it is not that big of a deal, to me anyway.
The way the Kings are going about this season is what I am more disappointed with.
Darryl Sutter did not seem like the best choice last season to take over for John Stevens and the fired Terry Murray. Somehow, he was the right man for the job, delivering the Kings to the promised land. But right now, Mr. Sutter is making a big mess of this whole thing.
Jonathan Quick has been overworked. In ten games so far, Quick has made a start in every single one of them, with Jonathan Bernier sitting on the bench, living the life of a bored rich man with no excitement. I wouldn't mind if the Kings were 3-5-2 with Quick having perhaps six or seven starts and Bernier three of four. But Quick looks tired, and is not playing up to his capabilities. The only person to blame for this is Sutter. And I have said over and over again, not playing Bernier hurts this team now and into the following season. I am not saying that Quick and Bernier split every game in hand, but Bernier definitely needs some playing time and Quick vice versa, needing some time off.
Let's look ahead at the current path that Sutter is taking; say the Kings finish out of the top eight after a disappointed shortened season, and Quick starts in 40 of the 48 games. Then management trades backup goalie Jonathan Bernier to someone like Toronto, Washington or another team in search of goaltending depth, effectively selling low due to Bernier's lack of experience. How will this team start the 2013-14 season with Quick and whoever the backup goaltender is? Which parts of the Bernier trade is going to effect the current lineup? Will GM Dean Lombardi pick up a strong defenseman or a third or fourth liner to replace someone like Dustin Penner or Jarret Stoll?
This is why this season is still important. If the Kings don't turn things around soon, then I hope that management starts making the right decisions. They can start by finally giving Quick a break and bolstering the value they have, or once had in Jonathan Bernier who was supposed to be the Kings' saving grace in goal.
Secondly, they will hopefully give some NHL ice time to prospects like Tyler Toffoli, Linden Vey and perhaps first-round pick Tanner Pearson.
Still, this team needs to start playing much better. There is no excuse for guys like Drew Doughty for example, to be a minus 10 with zero goals and four assists. For a player who was signed for eight years and top dollars, his game has been atrocious. Today's one-handed flick of the puck directly back to the Jonathan Ericsson to "assist" on the game-deciding goal is an inexcusable play. Perhaps a game or two in the press box would do him a world of good as well. If guys like Penner, Brad Richardson and Jake Muzzin are 'enjoying' the press box instead of dressing for games, why not one of your go-to big-money players?
We'll see if anything changes tomorrow in St. Louis. against a team that will also be out for Kings blood since they were convincingly swept out of the 2nd round by LA. I will be shocked if Jonathan Bernier is not in net for that one. I've said that before, and I guess to be honest, I won't be shocked. More shocked at the stupidity of Darryl Sutter.
Mikhail the Vampire and the Canadiens
First, let me say that although I like what Mikhail Grabovski brings to the Maple Leafs, I am already well aware of his temper. This was the same person who punched a drunken man in the face at the Olympics in Vancouver. Funny enough, the guy he drilled was wearing a Canadiens jersey.
Now, the more recent incident with Grabovski allegedly biting the finger of Max Pacioretty. This whole scrum started due to the punk Brandon Prust grabbing the face of Leo Komarov after the whistle. Apparently, Prust must have been taking exception to the hit that Komarov was trying to deliver to Brian Gionta, who I must say is one of the most gutless players out there at the moment. Gionta was a valuable member of some of those New Jersey Devil teams, but since he has landed in Montreal, he has turned into a little wimp. The same can be said about most current Montreal players who seem to be very good at coming up with excuses and constantly whining to the papers about every little thing.
Going back to Mr. Gionta a little more, do not forget the blind-sided drive-by elbow to the head of James Reimer in October last season. Reimer had just made a pad save at the top of his crease, and never saw Gionta flying towards him. Reviewing the video as I type this, Gionta actually glanced up at Reimer, who had made an initial save and made up his mind to railroad Reimer and make it seem like he was going for the loose puck, although the puck had been cleared from danger. The cheap shot went unpunished by the NHL and it took until just weeks ago for Reimer to get back on top of his game.
In my opinion, Gionta should be targeted every time the Leafs play the Canadiens, so a thumbs up to Komarov (who was not with the Leafs last season) and the other guys on the ice at the time for not forgetting that. As the one commentator said last night just after the scrap was over, a scrap in which the Canadiens started, that the Maple Leafs are a different team from a year ago and should not be taken lightly. I just hope that the Leafs treat every game as if they are playing Montreal.
Now back to Grabovski to close out my thoughts; recall the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals with half-animal, half-human Canucks forward Alex Burrows who allegedly bit the hand of Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron. Burrows received no punishment or fine for that incident, and I'd expect that Grabovski wouldn't either. The year before, it was Burrows who had pulled the hair of a Chicago Blackhawk (Adam Burish I believe) in Chicago near the end of the season before the two would battle it out in the 2nd round of the playoffs.
Personally, if anyone has the audacity to put their hands (Max Pacioretty) into someone's face, then complains about what happens afterwards (Max Pacioretty), then you get what you deserve. I do not condone Grabovski's behavior if he acted like Mike Tyson, but anyone who knows his history should not be surprised by his temper.
What I find more amusing about this whole thing is the way the Montreal players and coaches are taking this. Several players including coach Michel Therrien were belching their opinions of the matter to the press and questioning the manhood of Grabovski after the Habs had started the fight while trailing 5-0 in the third period. Instead of being worried about the opposition's reaction to their childlike behavior on the ice, perhaps they should be more worried about getting their butts kicked 6-0 on their home ice.
And you folks in Montreal wonder why your beloved Habs finished dead last in 2012!
All in all, the Maple Leafs have the upper hand on the Canadiens for now, and I hope the way that Toronto came together on the ice last night will continue to light the fire for the remainder of this short season.