Game 9: The Leafs Beat Themselves (And 5 Reasons They Are In A Rut)
Everything is fine, right? Tell me everything is fine.
The Leafs still boast a 5-3-1 record. They are two points out of first in the Eastern Conference. They are getting chances. They are controlling territorial play. They are competing even when they lose, as they did last night in Boston.
So what's the problem? Why are they in a rut? Well, here are five reasons:
1. The Leafs Are Beating The Leafs These Days
They are passing when they should be shooting (see: Tomas Kaberle last night). They are shooting when they should be passing (see: Dion Phaneuf last night). They are accidentally blocking their own shots (see: Tim Brent last night). They are deflecting shots wide (see: Nikolai Kulemin last night).
2. The Leafs Are Getting No Help From The Hockey Gods
Here are a few things that happened last night you won't find in the box score:
* Luca Caputi hit a goal post in the first period.
* With Boston goalie Tim Thomas down and out, the whistle inexplicably sounded just as Phil Kessel was circling in the slot alone with the puck and about to pot the all-important first goal of the game.
* Kulemin's stick was lifted seconds before he could tap the puck into an empty net.
* Francois Beauchemin drilled the puck over the net on a goalmouth scramble in the dying seconds of the first.
3. The Leafs Are Making Opposition Goalies Look Great
It's a bit disconcerting, really. How many times have we already heard, "The Leafs ran into a hot goalie!" Or, "A hot goalie stole the game!"
We're only nine games into the season! This is a troubling trend, especially when the Leafs' goaltending duo, while solid, is not exactly robbing the opposition.
Now, look. I'm not taking anything away from Thomas, who is on fire with five straight wins. The guy's stats are insane. I mean, a .981 save percentage? What? He's now operating with a 0.60 GAA?
You could tip a grand piano on its side, place it in front of a net and it wouldn't get those kinds of numbers.
But let's get real.
Last night, while Thomas made a couple of spectacular saves in the third, most of the 20 shots he stopped were fired into his torso and pads. It's as if the Leafs thought they were venturing into the TD Garden to play a game of paintball.
4. The Leafs Are Not Burying Their Chances
Eventually, the Leafs are going to start scoring the way they did against Ottawa, right? Tell me the Leafs are going to start scoring again.
Right now, though, the team is not burying their chances. No, instead of burying, chances are getting buffed to a high gloss and placed on a pedestal to torment and haunt the next line.
And against defensive-minded teams (like Boston) or teams that are now prepared for the Leafs' speed and passing game (every team in the NHL), this inability to convert is proving lethal.
The word tossed around the room is "snakebitten." But last night, it seemed much worse than that.
Grabovski seemed to have a reticulated python coiled around his neck whenever he got within five feet of the net. Was there a cobra hiding in Mike Brown’s helmet, one that threatened to sink its fangs into his Fu Manchu if he got alone in front? Oh, and does someone in Leafs Nation have a vial of antivenom we can proactively inject into Kris Versteeg when he returns from his back injury?
5. The Leafs Look Spooked
During the first four games this season, the neutral zone was like a particle accelerator. Whenever a Leaf passed through with the puck, they both sped up.
Pucks were not dumped into the opposition end and promptly turned over, as happened several times last night. The Leafs carried the puck as if it was tethered to their sticks with invisible string. They made crisp, beautiful passes. They buried their chances.
You know what else? The team looked so relaxed.
On the bench, nothing but smiles. After a goal, a five-man celebration huddle.
Now look at these poor bastards. They are grimacing even when the score is 0-0. They are squeezing their sticks. They look lost in queasy concentration, like college kids taking a 9 a.m. algebra exam after an all-night kegger.
They look spooked.
There is nothing worse than being told, "Relax!" when you're not relaxed. But guys, seriously, relax. Relax because you are making us nervous. Have some fun out there and the wins will return.
This is a much improved team. But it is a team that still needs to be convinced of this fact.
PHOTO: CJ GUNTHER/REUTERS