Game Blog – Bleacher Notes from Tuesday Night in Leaf Nation

In Hockey on February 3, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Wednesday, 02.03.2010 / 8:09 PM
Ryan Wagman– on special assignment

Toronto – Sitting four rows from the top in the Southwest corner of the arena, with an oversized Canadian flag in front of Dougie Gilmour’s banner, but with a clear view of those honouring Frank Mahovlich, Borje Salming and Syl Apps, I can hear the house announcer mention that Christian Hanson is now on the roster – called up to be the 12th forward, while Jeff Finger is the odd-man out once more on our relatively crowded blueline. The new Leaf acquisitions are debuting tonight, while the Devils are taking advantage of an away game against the team currently projected to finish last in the Wales (Eastern, for the neophytes among you) Conference to give Martin Brodeur a much-needed break ahead of the Olympics and start backup Yann Danis in goal.

As Dion Phaneuf is called out as part of the starting lineup, the almost-full audience lets out a lusty welcoming applause. More than a few Devils’ jerseys in the crowd tonight, including my seat-mate and good friend, Rafi, who lent me his Leafs jersey as a sort of bet-hedging protection scheme.

1st Period

4:40 – The hometown Buds open the scoring relatively early, on their first real scoring chance, as Nik Kulemin slots in a rebound from newcomer Fredrik Sjostrom’s (pronounced Shoe-strum) shot. I have railed against Rickard Wallin since he began his NHL comeback, but he did well on this play, digging the puck out from a scrum along the boards and inside the blueline to allow Sjostrom to drive the net. The three might make for a productive two-way third line. Phaneuf has had a few shifts and the break in the action allows me to reflect on the physical nature of his game. Did the applause get his blood up?

6:51 – Phaneuf tries to pinch the puck in at the blueline and loses, so he does the wise thing and starts a scrap with his Devil counterpart Colin White. The gloves drops and the crowd goes wild. “Dion, Dion…” I have to believe that he set out to make a good first impression on his GM and the Toronto fans, and he has. The city that embraced Tiger Williams and Tie Domi will always embrace a heart and soul tough guy who can fight and play, something I’ve documented before. It is hard to say who “won” the fight based on fisticuffs alone, but Phaneuf won the battle, as White took an additional two-minute penalty, giving the Leafs the first power play of the game. As is becoming more and more prevalent among Leaf power plays, nothing came of it. (The Leafs’ power play efficiency has dropped from 1/538s to 1/637s since January 1).

Before the big trades over the weekend, I had begun to notice that most Leaf rushes saw the Buds controlling the puck along the perimeter of the offensive zone, and firing many off-angled shots, perhaps contributing to their low goal totals. The rarely went up the middle, either shots from straight ahead or puck-carrying attempts. Now that three of our top nine forwards are gone (guess which one I’m not including…), they seem to be struggling even more in that regard, with numerous pass attempts from the centres down low out to the blueline escaping past the pointmen and killing the so-called opportunity.

13:27 – Another fight. This time, 4th-liner Jay Rosehill (yes he can fight, but I have misgivings about the rest of his game) squares off against the longest name in hockey, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The fight lasts longer than the penalties will, as Rosehill and the aristocrat performed an icy waltz across the rink.

17:20 – The Leafs fully kill their first penalty. Like their power play, this has been a sore point for the Blue-and-White all year, with (by far) the worst penalty kill in the game (1PPGA/317s, a full 50 seconds less efficient than the 2nd worst team – the Oilers).

In the intermission, I get to thinking about the type of crowd who sits up top, as compared to those who sit closer to the ice, where I sat last week. As most Leafs fans know, ducats are hard to come by without means or connections. I have neither, and the loss to the Kings last Tuesday (Jan. 26) was the first NHL game I have attended in over 10 years. In any case, the people sitting up top were much more fun.

During the intermission, Rafi and I went to the lobby for some refreshments. A boy around 8 years old saw us chatting, me in Rafi’s Leafs jersey and Rafi in Devil red, and was shocked. He asked me, completely confused, how we could be friends if we liked the same team. I tried to explain to him that there was more to life than your hockey team, but he wasn’t buying it. I asked him what he did in the summer when the hockey season was “over,” and he replied that he played summer hockey. I was wrong. There is nothing in life outside of hockey.

2nd Period

2:23 – Tyler Bozak brings the puck up the middle (sounds good already, doesn’t it?) and pushes the puck to his left and towards the net towards Alexei Ponikarovsky, drawing Danis over to the left. Poni the pony bangs it off the goalie and the rebound goes up the middle to a streaking Phil Kessel. With Danis out of position, Kessel makes no mistake, firing the puck through the middle of the net, bulging the twine. The Leafs are in front by a pair. I accept that Ponikarovsky will probably be traded soon (I’m guessing Pittsburgh for a 2nd rounder and maybe a mid-level prospect), but his work with Phil Kessel proves that Kessel needs to play with a big guy. When he was paired earlier with Bozak and Kulemin, the trio were frequently outmuscled and Kessel scored a solitary goal in 15 games. Bozak may be alright as his centre, but he isn’t big (6-1”, 180) and plays small. Maybe Hanson will get the opportunity once Ponikarovsky is dealt.

3:33 – The Leafs are put down a man once more, as Rosehill trips old man Deam McAmmond earning a two minute breather away from his mates. And the Leafs miraculously kill another penalty. Sjostrom and John Mitchell (a poor man’s Matt Stajan – I know how pathetic that sounds) carry the penalty killing load.

At this relatively early stage of the game, Jean-Sebastien “Jiggy” Giguere has not really been tested. The Devils have taken 13 shots through 28 minutes of action and Giguere has displayed solid positioning, challenging the shooter when possible, but not being pushed too hard.

14:09 – Not only are the Leafs killing penalties, but they make the Devils pay for their own misdemeanours. Lee Stempniak, near the left point, passes the puck to Francois Beauchemin standing right by the blue line, with a direct line in front of him to the goal. He uses his skate to push the puck slightly forward, steps towards the goal and rifles a low slapshot through the goalie and into the net. From the middle. Either Yann Danis was screened, or he simply isn’t very good. Or both. Maple Leafs – 3; Devils – 0.

17:09 – Giguere finally gives the fans his own personal reason for their enthusiasm. After stopping a Dainius Zubrus wrister from 17-feet out, the puck gets to Travis Zajac to the goalie’s left, with Jiggy seemingly out of position. No matter. Giguere lunges to his left to make a brilliant save. Phaneuf clears the puck for a quick Leaf break. They get called for offsides releasing the boo-birds.

Between that stop and the end of the period, there were five faceoffs. Mitchell took one (he won it) and Wallin took the other four – he lost each one. He’s currently at 45.9% on the season. I’m not really sure what he brings to the table.

3rd Period

At the starts of both the second and third periods, Rafi notes that the fans with the best seats in the house – the fine folks sitting in the Platinum section behind the benches and the penalty boxes – are entirely absent from their seats for the first few minutes of action. 17 minutes is not enough for peeing and sushi.

With the Leafs leading by 3, the third period is a duller affair. The Devils outshoot the home team 12-5, but nothing looks too challenging. Most interesting is that the Torontonians are so used to losing, (myself included) that we don’t accept victory until it is over. The 3-0 lead was still secure with 6 seconds to go before the house erupted in cheering.

The big debuts were capped off by each newcomer getting a star. Sjostrom got the 3rd, Phaneuf (“Dion! Dion! Dion!”) took the 2nd star, and by  becoming the second Leaf goalie to ever post a shutout in his debut, Giguere took the 1st star.

Of course those stars are symbolic, but after a small sample of one, most of Toronto is pretty happy with Burke’s trades. The Maple Leafs looks better, tougher and smarter. He gave up a lot of quantity (30% of his active roster), but their contributions will be replaced. Stajan was decent on faceoffs and put up a lot of points when he was teamed with Kessel, but relatively little on other lines. White, a personal fave, is a solid #4 defender, with solid offensive touch and grit, but prone to clumsy giveaways. Hagman had great hands and a wicked backhand, but was one of the main culprits in the Leafs’ reliance on the perimeter game. Toskala, Blake and Mayers will not be missed at all.

  1. Awesome article! I’ve been lurking here for a while and now decided to comment.

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