On a night in which the Toronto Maple Leafs played their first game since 2008 without Ron Wilson behind the bench, the boys in blue and white defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 at the Bell Centre. While one needs to reserve judgement for the next little while until new coach Randy Carlyle can implement his systems, there were many elements to last nights game that leaves fans feeling optimistic. Defensively the Leafs were dramatically better on the night, there were no glaring mistakes that led to odd man rushes against. The Leaf forwards were also much better in coming back into the defensive zone and supporting the blueline. This support helped prevent those opportunities that the Leafs have been allowing lately in which opposing forwards are left standing alone in the slot. Offensively there seemed to be some confusion, and while the Leafs did take 42 shots on net, the high flying attack that was so obvious early in the season continued to misfire. The lack of timing could be the result of the fact that the Canadiens like to clog up the neutral zone - a tactic that has caused the Leafs to struggle offensively the last two times these teams met – or it could be based on the fact that the confidence amongst the players is still low as they entered the night 1-9-1 in their last 11 contests.
The Carlyle era began exactly as the Wilson era ended with the Leafs surrendering the opening goal. Erik Cole capitalized off of a goal mouth scramble to beat Leaf goalie Jonas Gustavsson. The goal was Cole’s 23rd of the season, and he continues to be one of the few bright spots on a terrible season for the last place Habs. Luke Schenn was knocked down by Leaf winger Matt Frattin in the defensive zone causing him to be out of position on the goal. The Leafs didn’t fold up though. Gustavsson also looked solid on the night following that goal as he made some important saves – highlited by a big poke check on Cole – in that opening period to keep the deficit at one. Carlyle played a balanced lineup throughout the first period using his top three offensive lines evenly as well as his six blueliners. The Leafs ended up outshooting the Canadiens 13-7 in that opening frame, and were unlucky to not be even considering Joffrey Lupul misfired on a glorious opportunity in the final minute of the period.
As the second period began though it was obvious that Carlyle plans on leaning on the Grabovkski line as well as the Phanuef – Gunnarsson defense pairing. Frattin ended up rewarding his new coach’s faith in him as he snapped home a loose puck off of a scrambled draw. The goal was Frattin’s 6th of the season and first since he’s been recalled from the Toronto Marlies. The goal seemed to invigorate the buds as they began to take control of the play. Canadiens goalie Carey Price made a couple of great saves off of Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur to keep the game tied at ones. Gustavsson answered the bell at his own end as well especially on a Habs power play as he battled traffic in front to make some crucial saves. While I have been extremely critical of Gustavsson for most of this season, he has definitely demonstrated his character all season as he continues to battle and prove his detractors wrong.
In the final period Carlyle primarily used only three lines as the Grabovski and Kessel lines were joined by the newly formed Tim Connolly – David Steckel – Nikolai Kulemin. That third line was effective for most of the night as they were rarely penned in defensively and played most of their shifts in the Canadiens zone. While they didn’t hit the scoresheet all three players on that third unit had chances and seemed to begin to develop some chemistry as the night wore on. What was evident throughout the game was that this Leaf squad made a point to raise their physical game. Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn made the Canadiens forwards pay every chance they could. The forwards could be heard forechecking as well as Frattin, Steckel, Lupul, Mike Brown and Joey Crabb all laid the body throughout the game. Another element that was a welcome sight was Lupul laying down to block shots from the point. Great to see the leagues sixth highest scorer and top line winger sacrificing his body to get the two points.
Toronto took the lead just over part way through the third as MacArthur made a great behind the back pass to former Hab Grabovski in the slot. Grabovski made no mistake as he one timed the puck over a down and out Price for his first goal in 15 games. Grabo’s struggles have mirrored the Leafs’ and if he can get it going down the stretch it will be a welcome sign for the buds. With less than a minute left in the game and Price on the bench for an extra attacker, Cole took a selfish slashing penalty as he two handed Phaneuf’s twig sending it cartwheeling into the corner. Minutes before this incident Phaneuf crumpled Cole along the boards, and this retaliatory slash ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the Habs. Off of the ensuing faceoff Frattin fed Grabovski with a perfect pass and #84 made no mistake for his second of the night and 20th on the campaign.
As great a beginning as this was for Caryle one has to see if this was just a one off with the team trying to impress their new bench boss, or if this team can seriously begin to play strong defensive hockey and lay the body on a consistent basis. Another element to tonight’s game that was refreshing was the Leafs’ ability to win puck battles along the boards. Too often this season the Leafs were too soft on the puck along the walls leading to failed pressure offensively or leading to scoring chances against. Of course the Leafs were playing the worst team in the Eastern Conference tonight, so all the good signs must be taken with a grain of salt. However you don’t pick your opponent you just play the teams that are on your schedule. With games against the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins this week it will be interesting to see if they can continue with the good habits established tonight.
Men of the Match
Leafs: Matt Frattin – Played a career high 18:23 on the night and seemed to really thrive under Carlyle. Was slotted on a line with players that can help him maximize his skill set and his full arsenal of size, speed and shot were on display tonight. Frattin made some nice passes as well and looks great alongside Grabovski and MacArthur.
Canadiens: Erik Cole – Although he took an absolutely terrible penalty late in the game, he was a force all night for the Habs. Scored the lone goal and had many opportunities for more. Has really found a home in Montreal using both his size and speed on a consistent basis.
Healyism of the Night: “The Montreal coaching staff just held their breath. If they lose Price they have no hope”. No hope of what? What the hell is Healy talking about, the Habs are in last place and playing out the string. Would it be that catastrophic if Price missed a little bit of time at the end of this season?
Next Game: The Leafs will host the North East division leading Boston Bruins Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre.