Road Test No. 1: Can the Leafs disarm these two snipers?
The Leafs are in Pittsburgh tonight for their first road test.
As tests go, this one promises to be as difficult as taking an advanced calculus exam while reciting Shakespeare under water. Put it this way: Last season against Pittsburgh, the Leafs leading scorer was a Swedish fellow by the name of Rickard Wallin (4 points).
The Pens, coming off a 3-1 win against Jersey on Monday, rested yesterday, their first break since Sept. 29. After losing their first two games at home, the team is anxious to christen the brand new Consol Energy Center with an inaugural win.
If history is a reliable guide, Pittsburgh's big guns, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, will be armed and dangerous.
Toronto won 1 of 4 games against Pittsburgh last season. In those 4 games, Crosby recorded a lethal 7 points (6 goals, 1 assist) while Malkin chipped in 6 helpers in the three games he played.
In 15 career games against the Leafs, Malkin has established himself as something of a pesticide: 7 goals and 27 assists for a 2.27 points-per-game average.
Toronto, still basking in the afterglow of a strong start, will need a dramatic turnaround on the road this season if postseason action is the ultimate goal. On Thursday, after the opening night victory against Montreal, coach Ron Wilson did not mince words while delivering his post-game sermon to the assembled media.
"We're not going to make the playoffs unless we play better than we did last year on the road," he said. "That's the area we have to improve on the most."
Wilson then unveiled a target projection: His team will need to be .500 on the road and win 65 per cent of games at home if Toronto is to experience hockey this spring.
This won't be easy.
Since the NHL lockout in 2004-2005, the Leafs have played 205 regular season road games. They have won only 82 times and, during this period, by no coincidence, they have failed to advance to the big show.
By contrast, the four Leaf teams that thrilled fans with appearances in the Conference Finals over the past two decades, all shared one characteristic: They were fiercely competitive on the road.
Three of those teams boasted away records that were 5 games or more above .500: 1993-1994 (20-14-8), 1998-1999 (22-17-2) and 2001-2002 (19-14-4-4). Even the losses were close and hard-fought affairs.
But even before tonight's first road test, there is reason for optimism:
1. In their first two games, special teams show no sign of replicating the hellish futility from last season. The Leafs are perfect on the PK (0 goals in 7 opposition tries). The power play, meanwhile, has registered only 1 goal in 10 tries (and that came during a two-man advantage against Ottawa). But this stat belies a PP that is functioning at a very different level with Kessel, Kaberle, Phaneuf, Versteeg, Bozak, et al. zigging and zagging.
There is offensive alchemy. The team has looked threatening on every extra-man chance. The first and second units are controlling the puck in the zone. Attackers look impervious to the opposition box formation, especially down low. The Leafs are getting real scoring chances.
2. The Leafs are doing all of the smaller things – winning face-offs, winning foot races, moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly, not surrendering neutral zone turnovers, forechecking aggressively but not stupidly, pinching with admirable timing, using the glass – that become even more pronounced on the road when the visiting team doesn't trap and the home team gets the last change.
3. In J.S. Giguere, a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winner, the Leafs finally have a goaltender who does not seem inclined to blow late-game leads, the bane of their existence for most of this millennium. Jiggy has a .935 save percentage and 1.51 GAA in his two wins. But, again, in ways stats can't measure, he is giving this team – especially the young defencemen – a very important psychological lift: They know he's back there and ready to play saviour in the event of a gaffe or lapse in coverage.
Win, lose or shoot-out, the game tonight should be thrilling, especially for the Leafs who once played for Pittsburgh (Colby Armstrong, Michael Zigomanis and Tim Brent). And moments after the national anthems are played, Leaf fans will get a real sense of what this new-look team is capable of achieving this year.
UPDATE (1:01 p.m.): The Monster will get his first start tonight. He faced the Penguins once last season and lost 4-1 at the ACC on Jan. 9.
PHOTO: GENE J. PUSKAR/ASSOCIATED PRESS