The Leafs have certainly surprised just about everyone with their play this season, downing some impressive teams along their climb towards the top of the league standings. One team that hasn’t been caught off guard by the upstart boys from Toronto is the defending Stanley Cup champs, who have absolutely owned the Leafs for the first three games of their season series. A 6-2 thumping in Boston, a 7-0 shutout on Hockey Night in Canada in Toronto and last night’s 6-3 beating have leapfrogged the Bruins up to first place in the Northeast Division, with another game in Boston looming on Saturday night.
What has made it so impossible for the Leafs to turn in the type of performances against Boston that they have been able to muster against the rest of the league? Obviously, the Bruins aren’t a team to take lightly, given that they’re the current defenders of Lord Stanley’s mug, so I doubt it’s a matter of Toronto underestimating their opponents. That said, the Leafs had some big wins over the Bruins last season, so they shouldn’t be afraid of them either.
The whole team has been on a different level when they’ve played the Bruins all season, and not in a good way. Phil Kessel, the league’s leading scorer, has just 1 assist in the 3 games the clubs have played so far. Last night, Kessel looked better than he had in the either of the two previous meetings, but when he finally extracts himself from the stifling coverage of Zdeno Chara and the rest of the B’s solid blueline, Tim Thomas has been more than able to keep him off the board. Kessel’s not the only Leaf struggling to find offense against Boston. Only Mikhail Grabovski (1 goal, 1 assist) and Luke Schenn (3 assists) have more than one point against Boston.
A big reason for that is the Bruins’ style of defense caters to preventing the exact type of offense that has made the Leafs so successful elsewhere. Clogging up the neutral zone relentlessly, playing strong physical hockey in both ends and relying on a defense-first mentality that eventually leads to scoring opportunities which, more often than not, they’ve taken advantage of. Special teams is not always a strong point of the Bruins, but they’ve managed 4 powerplay goals against the Leafs, all early in the games when they negatively impacted the Leafs’ momentum.
To me, though, while last night’s game was a solid performance from Jonas Gustavsson, who made 34 saves, I’ll be interested to see how these teams stack up against each other with James Reimer between the pipes. No offense to the Monster, who genuinely seems to have turned his play around in the last week or so, but that 3rd goal last night was a killer, and those are the goals he needs to more completely eliminate from his game to give his team a better chance to compete against legit playoff contenders like the Bruins. Thomas allowed a squeaker of his own last night, but it was already the Bruins’ game to lose at that point.
All told, while the first two losses were pretty demoralizing, I don’t take a real negative feeling out of last night’s game. I’d agree with Ron Wilson that they really ended up on the disadvantage when it came to getting penalties called last night, and the Leafs’ red-hot powerplay would have been a major factor had it been given more opportunities. Referees aside, the Bruins are the hottest team in hockey right now, finishing off a month of November that saw them win 12 of 13 games and earn 25 of a possible 26 points. A strong showing in Boston from the Leafs will be a huge stepping stone for them to kick off the month of December the right way. If they can play the same game they played yesterday, and hopefully come out on the other side of the penalty calls, I think you’ll be looking at a different outcome.