Taking a look back at the start of this season there are some very good trends; mainly the bars in Leafs nations will be making killer sales and the cardiology departments in area hospitals will have no shortage of patients as all fans will require a visit to one or the other.
Being a Leafs fan right now is that strange mixture of pain and pleasure usually reserved to some exclusive clubs in the heart of Amsterdam. Some games you can’t help but scream in adulation while others will have you begging for a safe when things go more than a little too far. This weekend for instance was not one anyone could have predicted.
Game 1: An undisciplined, special teams failure allowing 5 goals against a team whose offensive ceiling is so low Mike Holmes is being called in prop it up.
Game 2: A near perfect 1st and 3rd period2, solid defensive effort shutting down the best player in the world who is likely to outscore the entire Rangers lineup all on his own.
Flip those around and you have a far more grim assessment of the season, Leafs beat the middling teams, and struggle against the real talented groups. Instead they seemed to pick up right where they left off in game 6 against the Bruins. (I still find it strange that they never played game 7 in that series last year) The Leafs, seemingly outclassed, bring their best hockey to the table, pulling out a big win even without some key players. Now Imagine them with a healthy lineup containing 4 players capable of 30 goals or more (Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Kadri), 2 players previously hitting 30 (Clarkson, Kulemin) and 2 depth guys playing the best hockey of their careers (Bolland, Raymond) and it you really get a sense this team can compete on the scoreboard with any team.
If offense was all that mattered then this lineup would be set, unfortunately, as has been the case for my entire life, the Leafs have an okay, but gaffable defense corps that can be dangerous in both ends of the rink. Captain Phaneuf seems to have settled down nicely this season, but his lack of speed and poor decision making under pressure have cost the Leafs a few times already and as much as I like Gunnarsson there is no way he should be a top pairing shutdown defenseman. However with a severe shortage of defense first blueliners and the likely hood of terrible play from Paul Ranger there isn’t anyone else to take on that role. Sure the likes of Rielly and Gardiner give us hope for the second coming of Niedermayer but they are not players I would trust to face the big guns on a nightly basis.
In the end it comes down to goaltending, and there has been some tremendous and terrible moments from them both so far. With Reimer there is always the heart stopping rebound that he somehow manages to dive in front of or the seemingly harmless wrister that finds a way in. Overall however he seems to be an NHL starter capable of winning it all, though it is yet to be seen if he can carry a team on his own. With Bernier you have a much simpler, controlled game. He seems like a godsend with the way he can… avoid rebounds. But that control comes at a cost as he has a much harder time recovering to make the second save when needed. The biggest issue with Bernier though has to be his focus; with Reimer you have pure intensity while Bernier’s attention (as we’ll be reminded in top10 lists for years to come) tends to drift but this is something that can be improved upon.
In the end this is a team that reminds me of the early Potvin era, a talented feisty team with the potential to surprise any opponent and with Kerry Fraser out of the way who knows what may be possible.