December 11, 2017

Blue (And White) Steel

I’m going to be honest. I had a completely different article written for this week.

I was going to temper expectations and point to things that need improving with this Maple Leafs team (namely their defense of leads), however after their game against the Chicago Blackhawks Monday night none of what I had written was pertinent anymore. Instead, the only thing on my mind was how resilient this Toronto team is proving to be.

Despite having scored 19 goals through three games (15 in the first two) the Leafs haven’t always looked dominant and confident. At times they looked downright outmatched and overwhelmed.

In game one of the season, the Leafs relied heavily on Frederik Andersen standing on his head in net, which he did in spades. Bombarded by the Winnipeg Jets, the Leafs #1 goalie answered one of the biggest questions facing Toronto to open the season: Could Frederik Andersen play at high enough level to, not only keep the Leafs in games, but steal wins outright for them? The Danish keeper answered emphatically with his play and quickly dispatched any doubt in his ability as a goaltender. The Leafs had been under siege throughout the game, especially early in the first when the game was still scoreless. Andersen kept Toronto alive when the game could just have easily spiralled into a massive win for the Jets and not the 7-2 victory the Maple Leafs ended up finishing with.

Against the New York Rangers, Toronto put on a display of the very best…and very worst they have to offer; they erupted offensively, scoring early and often in the first, but simply stopped playing for the entire duration of the second. With a big lead. the Leafs stopped skating and playing smart, hanging their goaltender out to dry for the second straight game, but this time with more dire consequences: A 5-2 lead evaporated to a 5-5 tie entering the final frame.

On Monday night against the ‘Hawks, the Maple Leafs fell behind early and never led the game. As with the game in Winnipeg, it seemed to take the them some time to get their legs going and to start playing properly. Chicago was ready to capitalize and outplayed them in the first. Chicago displayed why they have been one of the deadliest teams over the last decade while Toronto seemingly showed their inexperience and youth.

In all three instances however, Toronto has walked away with a “W”; giving them an unblemished record, at 3-0. They withstood the pressure of the Jets while skillfully and precisely capitalizing on their own. They overcame an egregious defensive collapse (which, given the history of this team, might have torpedoed the moral of the team and game itself) to rout the Rangers; and finally, they fought tooth and nail against one of the league’s toughest teams, clawed their way back, and scraped out a gutsy, statement win in overtime. If nothing else, this young Leafs team is proving to be irrepressible.

There have been Toronto teams in the past that have wilted under much less pressure and adversity. Given the added scrutiny and expectation surrounding this young Leafs team following a surprisingly successful season, you would have to think that strain and tension only feels amplified.

Three games into the season and the Leafs haven’t folded under pressure; they’ve risen to the occasion. Instead of three wins, the Maple Leafs could just as easily been saddled with three losses. Sure, the Leafs have scored at a prolific pace, but each game played thus far has had pivotal moments of momentum in which Toronto had to grab initiative; had they failed to do so the games would have swung the other direction and led them to defeat after defeat. It’s unclear at this point how they’ve managed to stay so cool under pressure (whether it be Babcock’s stern guidance or an air of youthful stubbornness), but it’s exciting to see this team make these kinds of steps forward. A good team finds ways to win and the Leafs are doing exactly that.

Perhaps one of the greatest assets at Toronto’s disposal, which makes them so resilient is their depth and parity throughout their lineup. While many would still consider the Matthews-Nylander-Hyman line their top unit, the Maple Leafs are getting production and equally impressive play from all of their lines. The goals scored by the Leafs have been spread throughout their lineup.  Thus far, only two forwards who have dressed for the team have failed to score a goal (both are fourth liners, Eric Fehr and Matt Martin) and only one skater has yet to register a point (again, Eric Fehr, however he has only dressed for one game). Many past NHL championship teams have flaunted a lineup in which they could send out any line, one through three (and sometimes even four), and rely on them to work, give the opposing team hell, and produce. Early in 2017/2018, fans are seeing signs that Toronto absolutely has that kind of depth…or even better. In the 3-on-3 overtime period on Monday night, we saw Chicago throw out Toews, Kane, and Keith as their best and only real chance to win; meanwhile, Toronto was able to push out trio after trio of skilled players. That meant a star like Matthews was able get rest and remain fresh. When he was used, he was able to gain an extra step on the opposition and produce the rush that led to his game-winning goal. Although it’s unlikely that every forward will continue to perform at this pace, at the moment, very few teams can match the combination of energy and skill that the Leafs seemingly have a glutton of in their lineup. When the likes of Connor Brown (a 20-goal scorer) is playing on your fourth line (and not through fault of his own or deficiency in play) and promising players like Kasperi Kapanen and Josh Leivo continue to be unable to crack the lineup, you know you’re in a good position offensively.

While 7 or 8 goal outings may not be the norm for the Maple Leafs this season, fans can feel confident should Toronto’s steely demeanor under pressure remains constant.

“Jonathan Milner is Graduate of York University and an avid writer, musician, and sports fan. Born in England but raised in Canada, Jonathan has developed a passion for sports as vast as the ocean that separates his homelands. A religious supporter of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Leeds United, he is determined that he will see these teams reach the pinnacle of their respective sports in his lifetime.”

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