Ten Points To Ponder
Ten observations on the Maple Leafs' 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night:
1. As previously suggested, this goalie battle is going to go on for a long while. People are seriously underestimated both James Reimer's talent and determination if they think he's just going to roll over and hand the starter's job to newcomer Jonathan Bernier.
Unlike Bernier, a former first round pick, Reimer has always had to fight against the odds. Even the year he emerged in Toronto as the starter, he began the season at No. 5 on the depth chart.
It's sad in a way how his accomplishments from last season have been forgotten so quickly. That said, it's going to be a battle for playing time, Reimer's not complaining and the overall result seems to be very good - or at least timely - goaltending for the Leafs. Second period breakaway saves by Reimer, first on Mikael Grandlund and then on Torrey Mitchell, were pivotal on Tuesday night.
2. How discombobulated were the Leafs against the Wild despite coming up with the win? Well, after two periods, the home side had only seven shots on goal, had only missed the net once and had eight shots blocked.
So they'd only TRIED to shoot 16 times over 40 minutes, partly because they were clobbered on faceoffs and didn't possess the puck much.
But understand this; the Leafs are off to their best start in 20 years for a number of reasons, not just blind luck. They can score (only San Jose has more goals), the goaltending has been sturdy and they've received excellent production from both special teams all season.
That's not the kind of comprehensive play head coach Randy Carlyle is looking for. But the Leafs are excelling in certain key areas, and did so against the Wild with a 4-5 night penalty killing and two power play goals.
3. In the final two minutes on Tuesday night, there were two noteworthy examples of unselfishness, one by Jay McClement, and one by Phil Kessel. Both showed that leadership can be demonstrated in different ways.
McClement played 21:02, his most as a Leaf except for a game last April against Rangers. With Josh Harding removed from the Wild net and the Leafs holding a 3-1 lead, he picked up a puck at the Leaf blueline.
Nobody would have been shocked if he'd gone for the open net with the two-goal lead. But he didn't, instead skating the puck to centre to make sure the icing was avoided at all costs, and ultimately getting his shot attempt blocked.
Kessel, a few seconds later, could have accepted a pass from Mason Raymond and tucked in his third goal of the season, but instead carefully made sure it was sliding into the unguarded net and let Raymond have the goal.
All those youngsters on the Leaf bench saw that, and McClement's play, and should have learned from them.
4. Carlyle downplayed it, but with the team missing five regulars - James van Riemsdyk, David Clarkson, Mark Fraser, Nik Kulemin, Frazer McLaren - to suspension and injuries, part of the reason the club is struggling at times is because of all the rookies and youngsters in the lineup.
In all, five players who were in London rookie camp are currently on the team. Getting them into NHL games now may pay off later in the season.
5. Josh Leivo received 13:51 of playing time on a line with Dave Bolland and McClement. Right now, he's the chief beneficiary of the absence of Clarkson, who now has only three games left on his 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight during the pre-season and with play his first game as a Leaf next week.
Leivo, known as a scorer, hasn't scored yet. But like Morgan Rielly, he seems to have a high hockey I.Q., which compensates for the fact that he isn't a dynamic skater. That means Carlyle can trust him, and the youngster picked up 5:24 of his playing time in the third period helping protect the lead.
6. You just had to feel for Darcy Kuemper in the Minny net after he was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals on only seven shots. While Reimer was getting pelted at the other end, the inexperienced Kuemper was dealing with a goalie's worst nightmare, almost no shots for long stretches.
The first shot he faced in the game was a spectacular goal by Tyler Bozak created by a series of tape-to-tape passes. After one more shot, the third shot beat him, a trickler through the legs.
He then didn't get another shot for the next 14 minutes of action, and the seventh and final shot he faced was on Leaf power play, with Raymond spinning in front unmolested by a Wild checker and shoving the puck home.
Kuemper's 23 and still learning. It was his 10th NHL appearance, including two in last spring's playoffs. But Tuesday was no fun at all for the Saskatoon native.
7. Van Riemsdyk's "upper body" injury was not sustained in a game, according to Carlyle, which adds a bit of mystery to it. Was it sustained cooking? Mowing the lawn? Doing a handspring?
Raymond took his spot on the No. 1 line, but lo and behold, there was Nazem Kadri getting some of JVR's penalty killing time, as well. In all, Kadri skated 1:29 while shorthanded, hardly something for which he's known. Not surprisingly, he's yet to pick up a shorthanded point as an NHLer.
8. It was the second game in a row the Leafs haven't picked up a fighting major, and in the last six games Carlyle's brawlers have been involved in only three fights after getting into five on opening night against Montreal.
The Leafs led the league with 44 last year (10 more than any other team) in the shortened season. Have they abandoned their pugilistic tendencies? We'll probably know more when McLaren, and Fraser, return to action.
For now, it's those muscular Habs, with nine scraps, leading the NHL.
9. One other reason the Leafs are experiencing many wobbly moments in their own zone this season? They have only one right-handed shot on the blueline.
Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner are playing their wrong side, and while Phaneuf is used to it, Gardiner is not. Even Phaneuf found himself victimized repeatedly in last spring's playoffs by Boston when the Bruins continually funnelled him up the right side, forcing him to make plays off his backhand.
Last year, the Leafs used four other righthanded shots on defence including Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Ryan O'Byrne and Mike Komisarek. Only Holzer is still in the organization.
You can bet a defenceman who shoots right is on Dave Nonis's shopping list.
10. It's turning out that the Leafs have a little more depth than people were giving them credit for, but they hope to have added some more to the organization this week by signing veteran centre Jerred Smithson, 34, to a tryout contract with the Marlies.
Smithson, you'll recall, was picked up by the Oilers at trade deadline last March. He's a defensive forward and solid faceoff man. If he can impress Steve Spott, you might see him later this season if the Leafs need help in the faceoff circle.