Philly Phaithful
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Leafs 4, Sabres 3: Have the Dark Ages Ended?

After tonight's win versus the Sabres, if you're a Leaf fan you are probably still clinging to some small shred of hope that they can upset the apple cart and sneak into eighth place. Well, good on ya, I say. Whether they do or not, this season must be declared a success. No, that's not homerism, either.
Since the All Star Break the Leafs have been one of the league's best teams to watch. Despite their youth and inexperience, they have found new levels of confidence and cohesiveness, especially when the guy between the pipes happens to be wearing jersey number 34. While the air was thick with gloomy prognostications tossed around early in the season, the Leafs have not only avoided handing over a second top 3 pick to Boston in as many seasons, but have successfully identified key pieces to build around going forward.
The comfort level they have when playing in front of Reimer, a virtual unknown before his Cinderella- story promotion from the Marlies, is by far and away the most critical component of their sustained success in the back half of the 2010-'11 season. He just has a way of making the big timely saves that enable his team to settle down and focus on the task at hand, without the white-knuckle, panic-moves that have so often spelled ill-timed turnovers, stupid penalties or worse, that preceded the emergence of the amiable Manitoban.

The Leafs knew they needed to come out hard against Buffalo, and that's just what they did, with captain Dion Phaneuf leading the charge with a valiant rush up-ice followed by an absolute missile from the point that fooled Ryan Miller to put the home team up by one in front of an electric ACC audience. Phaneuf has absolutely taken this team and made it his own since the departure of both Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin and seven of his eight goals have come since February, five of those in March. He's throwing the big hits, he's scoring goals, setting guys up, and laying down in front of pucks , with four blocks against the Sabres last night. He's becoming the total package Burke anticipated he would be for the Blue and White.
Nazem Kadri followed Phaneuf's lead by winning a gutsy battle in the Buffalo corner before taking it to the front of the net where Daryl Boyce banged it home to go up by two late in the first. This isn't the same Kadri we saw earlier in the season. This incarnation knows how to sense danger, when to fall back and assume a supportive posture, and when to rush vs. Dump and chase. He also goes courageously into the corners, as demonstrated by his work to set up Boyce on the second Leaf goal.
Thomas Vanek replied with just 11 seconds to go in the period when he found himself wide open at the side of the net, completely unmolested. No chance for Reimer on that one.

If you were ever worried about Nazem Kadri's ability to put it together at the next level, take heart. He's a player, and more than likely, a big-time player. His rush to set the table for MacArthur's goal was his best display of creativity and confidence to date. Dashing up the ice, he literally danced around the Buffalo defender with a slick little inside-outside fake before throwing it to number 16r, who converted it for his 21st of the season. While Kadri may be prone to the occasional brain cramp by trying to execute a move that simply won't work against bigger, smarter NHL players, there is no denying the skill set. As he gains confidence and physical strength, he is going to be a real force in the NHL.
The less said about the next two gaffes that allowed Buffalo to creep back into the game the better. Suffice to say, Connolly was given too much time and space behind the Leafs goal where he was able to flip a quick pass out to Jason Pominville who knocked it past Reimer as Keith Aulie scrambled to cover him.
Carl Gunnarsson inadvertently set up Rob Neidermeyer when he bobbled a puck he was attempting to chase down, which rolled on him. Before he had a chance to diffuse the situation, it was behind Reimer. Wilson then called a time out and managed to settle his team down and get back on track.

At 13:35 of the same period, Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski combined for the eventual winner as Number 81 picked up a great pass from first-star MacArthur (1 G, 2 A), as Grabovoski fought his way through the Sabres defenders before converting Kessel's feed for his 29th on the year. Kudos to Grabo for showing the tenacity to battle and create ice for himself.
With five points separating the Leafs and the Sabres, it's going to be an absolute dogfight to the end, but the Leafs have win-able games this week versus Boston, whom they have fared well against, and Ottawa. They are getting little help from Buffalo, and even less from Carolina, who beat Washington in a shootout to remain three points out and two points up on the Leafs.
In terms of playoffs, maybe they do, maybe they don't, but whenever they leave the ice for the final time this year, the ovation they get from their fans won't be obligatory, and it won't be brief. The Leafs have turned the corner. They are for real, and they're going to get get better. This feels different, doesn't it? It is the end of some very dark days here in Toronto for Leaf fans.
Be proud of your Leafs tonight...

Follow me on Twitter: @ODurkin

16 Comments

George Prax's picture

No offense, and I don't want to sound like a homer myself, but I don't see how you can declare this season a success when you're clearly going to miss the playoffs. For the leafs to make it, they basically have to win every game and all their competition has to lose most of their own games. While it's good to see them compete, for their future, the GM comes out every year and says "our goal is to make the playoffs". The Leafs flounder at the halfway point and then make a 25 game semi-surge towards the deadline to the end of the season, giving a false sense of hope to fans. The leafs didn't suffer many major injuries, their goaltending was the same this year as it was when they were playing well last year, for the most part, in fact on paper they were better. And as dangerous as they can be in any individual games, in general, they floundered again.

If I was a Leafs fan, late surge or not, missing the playoffs would be unacceptable to me. And honestly, I don't see how they make the playoffs next year either, no matter what moves they make this summer. Holding on to that hope and being proud of the team for almost making the playoffs just distracts from the fact that they missed them to begin with. Just like celebrating Ron Wilson's 600th career win, but ignoring the fact that he also hit 600 losses this year too.

Phil T's picture

Agree with George here. Not sure why you think this year is any different from the last years where the Leafs always started winning games when it didn't matter to give the illusion of possibly maybe making a playoff push.

George Prax's picture

Look at the habs... we're making the playoffs for, what, the 5th year in a row now? No one's happy here lol

George Prax's picture
Micheal Aldred wrote:

The fact is the Leafs have sucked for the last decade. Now they are young, overcame adversity to get out of the top ten picks and are moving forward with 14M in cap space. It's quite obvious that anyone that doesn't recognize why Leafs fans are optimistic are missing the bigger picture here and that's all that really needs to be said.

The point is that this is the same argument that's been made for, what, 3 years running now? I don't see the Leafs next year being any different than what they are this year, and that's a team that's bound to finish the season AT BEST clawing on to a playoff spot for their dear lives. The bigger picture, to me, is that Brian Burke has retooled his own "rebuild" every single year he's been GM and Leafs fans eat it up. I honestly can't see them being a top team anytime soon.

Owen Durkin's picture

No offense taken...
The point is absolutely valid, and I understand the premise behind both your comments, however, the determining factor here lies in the definition of ‘succes’, a topic which has generated debate on sports tradio shows since Burke arrived in Toronto. While ultimate success, as you correctly say, is to make it into the playoffs, a more succinct way of articulating this statement, which, by it’s very function a means of erasing the culture of mediocrity, the process in how the Leafs arrive there is far more significant than the result. Case and point: the Quinn era, when the goal of going deep by any means necessary was prioritized over the process of building a sustainable winner that could make noise every season, for years to come. The tactic backfired, and it crippled the team for 6 long seasons.

While Burke’s end-game is to win a cup in Toronto, the means in which he has gone about doing so has been a source of great debate. What is now transpiring is nothing like previous seasons under his regime. Goaltending is stabilized to a degree not seen since Belfour’s tenure.

I must disagree re: the Leafs not suffering major injury. Giguere has never recovered from his groin issue, the intended starter had a third heart procedure, Phaneuf missed a considerable amount of time due to a major surgical repair to his leg, Colby Armstrong broke both feet, had a finger surgically repaired, Boyce had his nose sewn on, Colton Orr has not played since early January, and Mike Brown has missed a significant number of games as well. The roster was filled by 13 different AHL callups, and yet they managed to exceed their results of last year by a quantifiable margin.

Success, at this juncture, is defined as righting the ship, and building a team that can compete year after year.
That goal, for the first time since the days of Doug Gilmour, appears attainable. That’s real success...

George Prax's picture
BlueAndWhiteBubble wrote:

No offense taken...
The point is absolutely valid, and I understand the premise behind both your comments, however, the determining factor here lies in the definition of ‘succes’, a topic which has generated debate on sports tradio shows since Burke arrived in Toronto. While ultimate success, as you correctly say, is to make it into the playoffs, a more succinct way of articulating this statement, which, by it’s very function a means of erasing the culture of mediocrity, the process in how the Leafs arrive there is far more significant than the result. Case and point: the Quinn era, when the goal of going deep by any means necessary was prioritized over the process of building a sustainable winner that could make noise every season, for years to come. The tactic backfired, and it crippled the team for 6 long seasons.

While Burke’s end-game is to win a cup in Toronto, the means in which he has gone about doing so has been a source of great debate. What is now transpiring is nothing like previous seasons under his regime. Goaltending is stabilized to a degree not seen since Belfour’s tenure.

I must disagree re: the Leafs not suffering major injury. Giguere has never recovered from his groin issue, the intended starter had a third heart procedure, Phaneuf missed a considerable amount of time due to a major surgical repair to his leg, Colby Armstrong broke both feet, had a finger surgically repaired, Boyce had his nose sewn on, Colton Orr has not played since early January, and Mike Brown has missed a significant number of games as well. The roster was filled by 13 different AHL callups, and yet they managed to exceed their results of last year by a quantifiable margin.

Success, at this juncture, is defined as righting the ship, and building a team that can compete year after year.
That goal, for the first time since the days of Doug Gilmour, appears attainable. That’s real success...

When I look around the league, I see Vancouver, who's had to ice something like 14 different defensemen, still setting franchise records for wins. I look at Montreal, who's been missing their top two defensemen for most of the season, and has three of the rest out multiple times or playing with injuries, not to mention the injuries up front, and still holding on to a playoff spot fairly securely. I look at Detroit's injury issues, much more severe, even the Avalanche. I see Pittsburgh missing two of the top five players in the entire league and still competing for the top spot in the East. I'm sorry, but when I look at Toronto's depth chart, the only significant skater who I see having played less than 60 games is Armstrong, and when they're healthy all I see is people complaining about Gustavsson and Giguere anyway, and if anything, that was a blessing in disguise for your team since you make the argument for Reimer in the same post. I'm sorry, but the Leafs injury issues this year are nowhere near significant.

And speaking of Reimer, I'd look at the young goaltenders around the league and how most of them fair after an original good run before proclaiming him as finally stabilizing the goaltending situation.

I just don't see how what I've seen from the leafs this season can translate into long term competitiveness. At least not yet.

Jason Pietroniro's picture

Blue and white, blue and white, blue and white. Sung ala Black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow.

Owen Durkin's picture

George,
Every team you name is significantly deeper than the Leafs. You're talking chalk and cheese here I also would not be so quick to dismiss Phaneuf's injury as insignificant. He's the team captain, and its vocal leader. His injury also ran concurrent with Armstrong's. If you look at the number of minutes Phaneuf plays that's a tough argument to make on its own, but coupled with Army's injury,the issue is compounded. Check the win-loss record of games with both players active if you're bot convinced. Also, Giguere was our starter before the groin issue emerged. That's a pretty significant loss to any team. As a result of more than 12 consecutive starts, Reimer was noticeably worn down at times, and it cost the Leafs in games lost which would have been win-able.
We don't need to compare the team to anyone other than itself at this point, and track the trend as compared to last season to understand that this is the best they have looked in many seasons. The trend is very encouraging, but the work is far from finished.

In contrast to this viewpoint, Burke could have quite easily dealt our most promising young assets for a handful of long in the tooth, snarly old veterans and made an intentional playoff push, only to get swept in four straight. Would we call that more successful than how they are presently trending? Hardly, and I'm sure you'll agree. Playoffs would be swell, but the difference here lies between 'making' the playoffs and 'being a playoff team'. They are closer than last year, by a country mile....

Owen Durkin's picture

Re: Reimer, while I agree he may come back to earth, the signs are evident that he has the skill, athleticism, the compete level and the psychological makeup to be that big-game goalie. His team plays a more stable game in front of him than they do in front of any other goalie in years, and that's not likely a fluke. Sure, anything can happen, and Burke will have a contingency, as he did when Giggy and Gus went down, but that's pro hockey in a nutshell.

It may be too early to call him the second coming of Ed Belfour, but he has been extremely good.

George Prax's picture
Micheal Aldred wrote:

Are we all forgetting that this team is clawing for a playoff position with 14M to spend and the same core next season? That's my issue with the argument that they will be the same or worse.

It's not what you have, but how you use it. You think he's going to get Richards with that 14 million? Or he'll get Kaberle back, or somehow get Markov? Cause I don't. Otherwise there isn't much else in the FA market of much significance. In terms of trading, if you're saying they aren't trading anyone from the core, and Owen says the Leafs aren't deep, then who do you trade for that significantly improves the Leafs?

Keep in mind also that other teams improve as well. Habs will perennially finish in the 6th to 9th area, Rangers aren't getting any worse especially if Sather makes a pitch for Richards, Sabres are in the same boat as the Leafs with all that cap space, Devils are only going to be better next year, same for the Isles, Ottawa likely won't bomb again... Cap space alone doesn't mean the team's going to be better.

And I'm not trying to imply that losing Armstrong and Phaneuf was insignificant or even losing the then starting goaltender, but the Leafs injury situations don't compare in the slightest to other teams. Like I said, all you have to do is look at their man games lost and it's pretty obvious that they managed to cope pretty well. Compared to the teams in their conference alone which have lost core players for the entire season.

As a Habs fan who's seen his team lose their top two defensemen, as well as Spacek, and at times even Gill, not to mention Pacioretty, Cammalleri, Plekanec, Halpern, Darche and so many more, I absolutely loathe seeing most fans using the injury excuse. They're part of the game, and while they're worse on some teams more than others, the Habs haven't had a problem coping, and no, I don't think they're much deeper than the Leafs. In that list there are five players who are part of the core who have missed significant time and even played injured, two of which have been done for the season for a while now. The Leafs have no excuse when it comes to injuries, and only themselves to blame when it comes to their record.

And that's my problem here. You guys have no problem looking at the positives and completely ignoring the negatives. It's like the people who celebrated Wilson's 600th win, but ignored that he also got his 600th loss this year too. That's the microcosm of the Leafs this year. There's just as much bad as there is good, and plenty of work left to do. I'm not trying to say that in the long term they won't be a good team, but when your GM blatantly scraps his own rebuild plan DURING the season and starts a new one (something he seemingly does every year), it's pretty evident that things aren't so rosy in the short term, whatever surge the team makes late in the season when it's pretty insignificant - however the media and fans may spin this "run".

George Prax's picture
Micheal Aldred wrote:

For a Habs fan, you're really missing the point. The Habs would not be anywhere near a playoff position if it wasnt for Price. You had Carey for an entire season, we had Reimer for about 30 games. Solid goaltender helped move this team from essentially last to out of a top 10 pick and within reach of the playoffs. The Leafs have not had good goaltending since Belfour. Now that they finally have goaltending, and it looks like depth at that position in the minors still, the team will be better next year. That's why I think they will make the playoffs next year and that's why I'm excited to be a Leafs fan. Compound the fact that we actually have two first round picks this year, picked up three solid prospects (Brenner, Colborne, and Gardiner) and you have to sit back and say the Leafs are going to be exciting for years to come. No one is sitting here claiming they will win a cup, or anything like that, but as a Leafs fan, I'm happy to just be able to watch a competitive team instead of turning off the television when they are losing by a goal.

Again, as a Habs fan yourself, I'm shocked you don't see why Leafs fans are excited as it has been your goaltending for the last two seasons that's gotten your team anywhere.

The Habs surprised a lot of teams last year and nearly made it to the finals. Teams now understand what to expect from them and they won't be surprising anyone in the post-season this year, especially with their lack of goal scoring. I'd be more worried about your team falling out in the first round than I would be on the Leafs narrowingly missing the playoffs.

Let the blue and white fans be happy for a change. We've seen enough shit.

I hate it when these posts resort to this. Why does me being a Habs fan mean that I shouldn't comment on my thoughts about the Leafs, the team I arguably watch the most of outside the Habs? You probably don't read my blogs, but I'm plenty preoccupied with my own team's troubles. I may not seem objective, but I think I am in my views here. You're right, goaltending is very important to a team, and the Leafs didn't have solid goaltending for a large part of the season. But what makes Reimer so much different than people salivating all over Gustavsson when he first came over, even guys like Toskala, Giguere, etc, when they were traded for? Believe me, it's easy for a goalie to make an impact in his rookie year, when he's battling for a spot and doesn't feel the pressure of performing because he simply hasn't been around the team long enough. You guy shouldn't proclaim that this is the best goaltending since Belfour, because you really hasn't seen what Reimer might or might not do over the full course of a season. We went through the same thing with Price, who really faltered in his sophomore year. We've been what you've been through with Giguere, with Huet. We've had Theodore, and all the rest.

And yes, the Habs wouldn't be anywhere without Carey, but that's not necessarily because goaltending is as important as you make it sound. I don't want to under-valuate goaltending here, but the truth is that what Price is doing rivals any single year performance in Canadiens goaltending history. It's literally once in a century goaltending we're getting from Price, but as weird as it sounds, if the team was playing well in front of him, we wouldn't need it. Same with Halak last year.

But that's not my point. The point is that every year, you guys say the same thing, that the dark ages are over and that this is finally it for the Leafs and that next year you'll make the playoffs, etc etc. Well, from what I've seen, I'm not so sure. There's literally no difference between this year's Leafs mini-run and last year's to me, and I don't understand why you guys can't see that.

Owen Durkin's picture

George,
The Leafs have 'used what they have' perhaps better than anyone else this year. Thirteen callups this season, seven staying with the team long-term, and a winning record in the last half of the season support this claim.

Burke may have interest in Richards, but I can assure you there is zero interest in either Markov or Kaberle. Theyre too old to fit his vision of a rebuilt Leaf team. If the opportunity arises to acquire Zach Parise, who will take no kind of a 'hometown discount' after the Devils made Ilya a hundred-millionaire, make no mistake- Burke will absolutely mortgage the distant future once again for a 26-year old 90-point stud that Lou can't afford.Regarding trade-able assets, start with two first rounders, maybe three. For the right deal, one of Kadri or Colborne may be a consideration.

Any given franchise may be at various points in its growth, because the process of managing a roster is cyclical in nature. And that's why the only comparison that really needs to be made is internal. Where the Leafs are at in relation to any other team in terms of development is irrelevant. At least until they become contenders.

Your Habs should each donate half their salary to a charity of Carey Price's choosing. No Carey= no playoffs for MTL, no question.

Re the issue of objectivity, I am the opposite of 'homer', and I'm no Wilson sycophant either. Re: his win/loss record, take a moment to review Babe Ruth's stats...you will see that he also led in strikeouts...nuff said. I am no Leafs apologist, but I am enjoying the process of watching a team go from a club that can have excellent games, to having 'game excellence'.