Well Leaf fans, this season’s dream is over. Despite being one of the better teams in hockey since the All-Star break (18-7-6, 42 pts), and more specifically the trade deadline (10-5-2, 22 pts), the Leafs got no help from the out-of-town scoreboard down the stretch and have finally run out of time on their playoff run. A stunning come-from-behind win by the Rangers over Boston on Monday put them out of reach, while a 4-2 victory on the back of a Thomas Vanek hattrick put the Sabres at 92 points. While it may not have made a difference, considering that the Buds lost in a shootout to Washington anyways, there’s still plenty to look forward to from one of the league’s youngest teams.
Given the statements made by Pierre Lebrun on last week’s Hot Stove segment, it appears that rookie sensation James Reimer will be given every opportunity to maintain the starting job in Toronto next season. According to Lebrun, Brian Burke will not pursue renowned UFA goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and it’s more likely that he signs a veteran backup for short money, or rely on the Monster to lighten Optimus Reim’s load. Reimer’s play this year was the biggest reason that the Leafs were able to turn things around this season, and we can only hope he doesn’t experience a significant regression in his sophomore season.
However, Reimer wasn’t the only reason the Leafs found themselves just on the outside of the postseason this year, instead of the league basement where they appeared to be headed when 2011 began. The strong play of both Keith Aulie (who, surprisingly, did not look overmatched when dealing with Alexander Ovechkin tonight) and, more importantly, Dion Phaneuf helped to shore up things defensively, while Mike Komisarek appeared to finally remember the game he was being paid millions of dollars to play, at least for a few shifts.
Certainly, there will be no shortage of discussion regarding the Leafs’ offensive capabilities, including the emergence of Nikolai Kulemin as a 30-goal scorer, and the strong play of Joffrey Lupul down the stretch. In Lupul, the Leafs may have found themselves a real diamond in the rough, given that he was rarely given opportunities to play in a top-six capacity during his time in Philadelphia or Anaheim, and was largely forgotten after a season of difficult illness and injuries sidelined him. With 8 goals and 16 points in just 25 games with the Leafs, Lupul not only made a mark of his own as a talented scorer, but gave added hope to those that believe the Leafs are just a few pieces away from being a true contender.
If Lupul and Phil Kessel were paired with a talented playmaking center like we all hope they will be, and Lupul was able to translate his post-deadline success into a full season of offensive productivity, the Leafs could very well have a potent offense next season. Nazem Kadri could be a great fit with Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong on the 3rd line, while I think Bozak’s horrendous plus/minus rating would benefit significantly from playing in a more defense-first role. (He and Armie meshed well on the PK, but when tasked with playing defense alongside the admittedly-offensive minded Kessel, the diminutive center’s numbers fell off significantly).
On to the AHL-ers. Darryl Boyce, Tim Brent, Joey Crabb and even Jay Rosehill have all performed very solid work over the last half of the season, and if I had it my way, Boyce, Brent and Rosehill would all get their cards punched for next season as well. Rosehill offers a more complete game than Colton Orr, while still providing a pugnacious foe that few enforcers will look forward to tangling with. Brent’s gutsy play night-in and night-out have made him a fan favorite, as has Boyce’s high-energy game.
All-in-all, it’s been one hell of a ride, and if nothing less, the Leafs still have two games to gain points and hope to lower the Bruins’ draft pick even further. As it stands now, the B’s would pick 11th in June, but the Canes are still within striking distance so there should still be some motivation for the Blue and White. I’d expect Reimer to get a much-deserved night off in Jersey, but I hope he gets the final game of the season against Montreal.
It’s been great actually having meaningful hockey to watch this late in the season, and I truly believe the Leafs will be participating in next year’s playoffs. Go Leafs!
Topics: Alexander Ovechkin, Brian Burke, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Colby Armstrong, Darryl Boyce, Dion Phaneuf, James Reimer, Jay Rosehill, Joey Crabb, Joffrey Lupul, Mike Komisarek, Nazem Kadri, Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel, Tim Brent, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak