A Provincial View
The fact that the Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are provincial rivals leads naturally to comparisons. Right now, it's a comparison that has turned ugly on the Sens.
The combination of Ottawa's dreadful showing Tuesday night in a 6-0 loss to Boston - a defeat that may have sealed the fate of head coach Cory Clouston - and the Leafs' well-deserved 4-2 road triumph against the San Jose Sharks put the Leafs two points ahead of Ottawa. Given that the Sens comfortably made the playoffs last year, a full 20 points ahead of the Leafs, the current situation offers instructive commentary on both clubs.
For Ottawa, it's final proof, really, that the window has closed on their chances to win with the group that includes Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Chris Phillips. GM Bryan Murray has resisted breaking up the group, or hasn't been able to, but watching his club plummet in the standings has to have convinced Murray that it is time to tear this thing down and rebuild.
The question now is whether Murray will get the opportunity to organize that rebuild.
For the rebuilding Leafs, a fourth straight victory, and a third consecutive triumph on the road, allowed Ron Wilson to claim his 600th career win (82nd with the Leafs) as the club continued to play well in front of recently recalled netminder James Reimer. It's fair to guess that Wilson's plan of starting J.S. Giguere in Phoenix on Thursday has to be under serious review, for taking the sizzling Reimer out now with his teammates clearly responding to his play makes no sense at all.
While captain Dion Phaneuf has been the target of much criticism this season and played poorly in a win over L.A. on Monday night, once again the numbers prove emphatically that with him the lineup, the Leafs are a better team. Including the win over San Jose, the Leafs have now won eight of 15 games since he returned from injury Dec. 9.
Phil Kessel, meanwhile, has been on fire for more than a week now. He scored again last night against the Sharks on a dazzling play that illustrated the special talent he is when he's rolling, but more than that, he has shown in recent games a spark and element of grit that wasn't there for most of December.
With 19 goals, he's headed for a season of 35 goals or more, which of course won't be nearly enough to silence those who endlessly lament the sacrifice of two first round picks to acquire the speedy winger.
Who would have thought that it would have been the addition of callup Joey Crabb to the twosome of Kessel and Tyler Bozak that would get Kessel flying again? Crabb, however, has been a very useful grinder, as has centre Darryl Boyce.
That the Leafs have strung a few victories together will, as always, invite the same snide plan-the-parade comments as any success from the Toronto franchise does. The fact is, however, that with Reimer delivering stellar goaltending rather than the inconsistent goaltending that has plagued the team for years, suddenly the Leafs are finding themselves very competitive against good clubs.
That doesn't mean a playoff berth is imminent. They're too far back. But if the rest of this season is about making sure young players get all the ice time they need to establish themselves as NHL regulars, it's proving to be a fruitful period. Notable for his strong play on this road trip, for example, has been defenceman Carl Gunnarson, a youngster who seemed to have taken a step back earlier this year but is now back at the level he was last year.
For Ottawa, meanwhile, the fact that up-and-down defenceman Erik Karlsson will represent the club at the all-star game in Raleigh this month is a strong commentary on how those core players Murray hoped and believed would carry the club have failed.
It's hard enough for Senators fans to stomach what's going on. But to have the Senators below the Leafs (Toronto hasn't finished above Ottawa since the '03-04 season) must make it downright depressing for Ottawa supporters.
The Leafs, for what it's worth, are still 26th overall, but moving out of the bottom five is clearly within reach with Columbus, Florida, Calgary and Buffalo all now within range.