By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 4) – I saw it on Facebook this morning. To avoid probable humiliation, I will leave the contributor unidentified. Here was the post (edited for English): “If I’m David Nonis, I let it be known everyone is available [at tomorrow’s NHL trade deadline] except [Phil] Kessel and JVR [James van Riemsdyk]. Leafs can’t survive serious hockey.”
Turning to another website – Dictionary.com – I looked up the word panic: “A sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons or animals.” I’ll let you determine which of the aforementioned most aptly defines a Toronto Maple Leaf zealot (though Option 2 is far from unreasonable) and whether the first-paragraph sentiment in this blog is “hysterical” and/or “irrational.”
At this point, however, with 19 games remaining in the season, I can tell you – unequivocally – that any such reaction is “without cause.”
Hey, folks, the Maple Leafs have encountered a bit of a speed-wobble since their untimely pause for the Winter Olympics. Untimely, because 26 other teams in the National Hockey League buzzed along at a slower clip in the month prior to Sochi. At 11-2-1, the Leafs were performing with an ungodly .821 win percentage. Anything near that in the 22 post-Olympic matches would enable the club to challenge – and likely overtake – Pittsburgh for top perch in the Eastern Conference.
Now, where does that rank on the logic meter?
JAMES van RIEMSDYK AND THE MAPLE LEAFS HAVE TO GET BACK ON BOTH FEET – AS THEY WERE PRIOR TO THE WINTER OLYMPICS. COLUMBUS GOALIE SERGEI BOBROVSKI HELD LEAFS TO ONE GOAL IN A VICTORY MONDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE… BLUE JACKETS SWEEPING THREE GAMES AGAINST THE BLUE AND WHITE THIS SEASON. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Before you invoke the dormant, “18-wheeler” analogy immortalized by Brian Burke, please take a moment to review my submission here from Jan. 31 (1jTrp1Y). If you’d rather not, the headline was “LEAFS HAVE RESCUED THEIR SEASON” – penned after a 6-3 doubling of Florida Panthers at Air Canada Centre and an 8-1-1 eruption in 10 games. Thirty-two days later, the message endures. In the ebb-and-flow of the long NHL season, Toronto’s seven-point bulge atop the Eastern playoff terminator has withered to four. All that means is the club will have to dig in even harder over the last five-plus weeks of the schedule.
But, Leafs do need a few reminders:
• Though rather adept at overcoming leads, the Blue and White (according to decades-long evidence) will not win many games after surrendering the first goal, as in two of three post-Olympic encounters.
• Man-advantage opportunities are to be availed. Though Maple Leafs have the NHL’s most prolific forward unit of the past month (Tyler Bozak, Kessel and van Riemsdyk), the powerplay is a disaster – scoreless in six games. Given that secondary production is below par, that trend must soon be demolished.
• Defensive posture, much in evidence prior to the Olympics, has to return. In that regard, Toronto’s best tack is skating the puck out of the defensive zone – as it did during the 11-2-1 eruption. Leafs are neither well-enough organized nor self-assured to contain the opposition around the net. Puck movement, therefore, is compulsory, with Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson smartly meandering up ice.
All of this, in my view, is attainable. Neither am I overly concerned about the up-coming California trek against three of the NHL’s best clubs: Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles. Given that Leafs tend to play up or down to the level of opposition, the western-USA swing will provide a terrific and timely chance to match goods with the caliber of team they must conquer to enjoy a lengthy playoff run. Either the club is good enough, or it isn’t. We’ll find out more next week.
In the interim, try and alternately remember that, a) Maple Leafs were playing just a tad over their head during the pre-Olympic surge, and b) few teams in the NHL will “fluke” an 11-2-1 outburst. This is a very capable club, with elite scoring and above-average goaltending.
I’m not expecting even a nine-wheeler plunge.
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