Game 29: Five Lessons For The Week Ahead
People, the malls are insane today. I lasted about 45 minutes among the horde of elbowing shoppers before retreating home empty handed.
You win this time, Eaton Centre! But I shall try again next week! (Except you, H&M. You are a freakish vortex of teenage commotion and I won’t try you again.)
A few very late and very random thoughts about last night's 3-1 win over Montreal:
Now, look. I don't make excuses when the Leafs sleep-skate or bumble their way through abysmal first periods. So I'm not inclined to justify the Habs' sloppy, groggy performance.
After a tough game against Detroit on Friday, did the visitors look ready for a nap instead of a scrap? Yes. Was Alex Auld the goaltending equivalent of Mr. T to Carey Price's Robert De Niro? Sure.
But you know what? I don't care. I don't pity the fools.
The Leafs have encountered an endless parade of red-hot goalies all season long. They have faced many teams that were ready to rumble. So let's chalk up last night's anomaly to an inexplicable balancing-out mechanism in the universe and leave it at that.
The good news: Toronto beat Boston, Washington and Montreal over the past week. The bad news: Despite earning 6 of 10 points against top Eastern teams, the Leafs remain 9 points out of a playoff spot.
In short: Even a stretch of .600 hockey did not change the relative standings.
But let's just focus on the good news on this rainy Sunday afternoon. Let's just seize upon the positives as the Leafs embark on their first Western Canada road trip of the season with upcoming games against Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
Here now, Five Lessons Learned From The Past Week For The Week Ahead (From The Broken Record Collection):
I won't lie to you: At 10:35 of the first period last night, when a streaking Tomas Kaberle took a nice pass from Fredrik Sjostrom and fired a low, hard shot past a comatose Auld, I nearly tumbled out of my seat.
What? Kaberle shot the puck? He didn't slam on the brakes and attempt a doomed give-and-go with Sjostrom? He didn't attempt a blind drop pass from the slot?
It was a good reminder to all backend corps: Shoot!
It was Kaberle's first goal of the season. Against Boston a week earlier, Carl Gunnarsson picked up his first. If the Leafs are to succeed with this roster, they need more offensive production from the blueline.
I still don't understand what happened last night between Clarke MacArthur and Jaroslav Spacek. That was weird.
I gather they were roommates in Buffalo at one point. So maybe Spacek was really messy or really loud or really annoying. Maybe he made fun of MacArthur’s hair in the morning. I don't know.
But in the first, after a harmless looking collision, MacArthur morphed into a madman. He threw off his gloves and chased down his old teammate the way a hungry lion chases down an injured gazelle.
Then he rained blows down on Spacek, as if a voice in his head was shouting: Clarke! This is the guy who threw waffles at everyone! Beat him! Beat him senseless! Beat him for those waffles!
The lesson? The Leafs fare considerably better when pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence are not afterthoughts after it's already too late.
This is counterintuitive, especially considering the Leafs record when scoring first compared to not scoring first.
But I've changed my mind.
Every team in the NHL has a 50 per cent chance of scoring first. So if you invest too much psychological energy into scoring first and you don't, you end up creating an entirely unnecessary mental deficit.
Hey, Leafs! Yes, it would be great if you scored first every game. But you didn't score first against Boston or Washington and you won.
The lesson: Play lethally hard for 60 minutes and the first goal will rarely kill you.
Before the game against Philadelphia, the cameras caught Phil Kessel sitting in the room and looking rather morose. He was slumped over in deep thought. He was tugging at his hair with the acute frustration of an atheist in the Bible belt.
It was hard not to feel sorry for the guy.
But here's my theory after 29 games: He doesn't thrive under pressure. He doesn't suck up adversarial dirt and spit out diamonds. When the going gets tough, when fingers are pointed in his direction, Kessel simply stops skating and shooting.
He vanishes into his own personal hell.
Hockey players are no different than the rest of us. Some need a kick in the pants to succeed. Some need to be praised and encouraged and mollycoddled even when things aren't going great.
Kessel, I suspect, belongs to the latter group.
So here's a crazy idea: Let's stop analyzing The Trade. It's over. It is what it is. Let's stop thinking about him as a superstar saviour who will single-handedly win games for us.
Some nights, maybe he will. But most nights, probably he won't.
Let's just lower our expectations and let this guy relax long enough to score as he was at the start of the season.
I know this sounds like I'm letting him off the hook. But the truth is, Phil Kessel is the only sniper on this team. And he's a sniper without a reliable set-up man.
Me, I'm hereby cutting him some slack.
The Leafs are a completely different team when Armstrong is in the line-up. Is this a coincidence? I have no idea.
But just in case it's not, I shall conclude this post with a heartfelt plea to the training staff: Keep this guy healthy. Please.
Pump him full of Cold FX in the mornings. Don't let him walk across wet floors unsupervised. Test every joint and bone in his body 12 times a day. For crying out loud, store him in a cryogenic chamber between games and thaw him out two hours before the puck drops.
Go West, you magnificent Leaf bastards. Go West and win the next three games.
PHOTO: TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR