Takin' a T/O With BT: The Two Faces of the Toronto Maple Leafs

xx yySenior Writer IOctober 12, 2008

Coming into this season, we were warned that it might be like this. We knew not to expect miracles from a new cast of players that were still getting their feet wet. We had to come to grips with the fact that in some games they'd look great, but others they may look over-matched.

No one thought we'd see the two biggest dynamics that are expected from this season within the first two games, and I didn't think I'd be sick enough of Saturday's game in time to catch the late show at the movies.

On Thursday night in Detroit, the Maple Leafs watched as the Detroit Red Wings raised their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters in preparation of one of the most heavily anticipated defense in recent history.

Instead of allowing the Wings to get off to a roaring start though, the Leafs decided that they wanted to play giant killers, using Detroit's own style against them.

The Leafs played the game tight, keeping close to Detroit at all times. Playing a style that the Wings have preached over the past few seasons, the Leafs limited their turnovers (only giving it away five times), while capitalizing on Detroit mistakes (amongst the 19 giveaways were the Chris Osgood "clearing attempt" leading to Pavel Kubina's goal, and the interception leading to Nikolai Kulemin's display of shiftiness).

The Leafs also displayed a new-found commitment to shot-blocking (a staple of Ron Wilson teams), and made sure they found the net (only four recorded missed shots). They forechecked like fiends and displayed a strong-willed passion for the game.

If anything could have been improved upon in the game, the big thing would have been faceoffs, as the Leafs won just 36 percent of draws all night.

Finalizing the fact that the Leafs played one of their better games in recent memory, the E-mail from my dad that night had "Are we back on the bandwagon yet?" as the subject line.

Side note: In no way are we bandwagon fans. My dad was alive the last time the Leafs won the cup and has been through so much that if he was a bandwagon fan, you'd have known by now. At the end of every season, though, we have the "so we're disappointed again...do we watch next year?" conversation in front of my mother, just so she has a bit of hope for the future.

You'd think she'd have learned after the past 20 years eh?

Fast-forward to Saturday night and the Maple Leafs' season debut on Hockey Night in Canada. The Montreal Canadiens and their Centennial party were making their rounds.

While the Leafs played responsibly in Detroit (taking only three minor penalties), that discipline seemed to evaporate over Friday, resulting in eight penalties (including a Matt Stajan double-minor in the second) at home against the rival Habs.

From about the 10-minute mark of the first period onward, the Leafs seemed to be in trouble. While they were able to keep the play fluidly moving back and forth in Detroit, alleviating pressure in their own end from time-to-time, Montreal was cycling and cycling hard against the Baby Buds, and there didn't seem to be anything they could do about it.

The Leafs fell behind after the first period, and from there it went completely downhill. The Canadiens rattled off three straight power play goals before the Leafs finally got fortunate with the man-advantage.

The Leafs continued to block shots (20), but the youthfulness was on full display as they gave away the puck at inopportune times and left Vesa Toskala completely out to dry.

V-Tosk seemed to be the only Leaf on the ice not skating with cement in his boots, but on nights like those there's only so much a goalie can do.

As the horn sounded to end the third period, though, all that anyone could think about was how this could very well be how the season ends up: one night on, one night off.

The Leafs are in no way done—no one's season is finished two games in—but what they've done is show off a few things.

One, they've shown that when they are on, they have the ability to capitalize on the NHL higher-ups when they suffer through off nights.

Two, when the Leafs have an off night, they really have an off night.

And three, whether the season is full of more Thursday nights than Saturday nights or more Saturday nights than Thursday nights, the Leafs have already improved in areas of their game that suffered last year, and the areas where they can improve upon are immediately identifiable.

If the Leafs want to keep improving over the course of the season, though, there is something they can do—that they're built for—to stay competitive.

As Dominic Rhodes would say, they just have to "out-physical" the other team. That in itself, win or lose, is something to count on during the season.

Even if they're going to lose by 11 goals each game.

If this is how difficult the growing pains are going to be this season, then at least there is one bright side.

If the games keep ending halfway through the second period, there's still enough time for me to catch the late show at the local theatre.


Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.


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