Back in grade school, we played hockey for gym class in the winter. We made up teams each session, and one day, by the luck of the draw, the team I was on somehow ended up with all the talented players.
The other side looked destined for a big loss. We thought the win was inevitable and were congratulating ourselves before the puck was even dropped. Then, while my team mailed it in, the other team worked their tails off, and ended up kicking our butts.
Tonight the Leafs showed again that hard work can win games.
Facing the ever-talented Sens, who, despite their slow start, can be explosive any given night, the Leafs came out and simply out-worked and out-hustled their opponent to come away with a hard-earned 3-2 victory.
Perhaps due to playing the second of back-to-back games, the Sens failed to look interested in this game, save for a few stretches in the first two periods, and then in the final frame, when they had an undeserved chance to tie up the contest.
The Leafs started strong, forcing the play and skating hard. Minutes into the contest Luke Schenn took issue with Chris Neil's knee-on-knee hit on Matt Stajan and took on a tough customer in his first NHL bout.
The fight was pretty much a draw, except that it was the Leafs who were the ones that came away energized. They forced the Sens into three penalties and ended up with 21 shots in the first period alone.
That they came away with only a one-goal lead shows how this team lacks finish. They seem, however, to refuse to let that fact get them down.
In the second period it was more of the same, with the Leafs winning battles along the boards with regularity, winning races to the puck, winning face-offs, and taking the body. Some great work behind the net from Hagman and a slick pass to Grabovski out front resulted in the Belarusian's first goal of the year for a 2-0 lead.
It was a beautiful wrist shot into the top corner and finally got the monkey off his back, although his back luck seemed destined to continue after hitting the cross bar on a breakaway in the first. The Leafs will need more production from this talented player if they are to win with any regularity.
In the third the Sens started to look interested, but Ponikarovski netted the winner on a pass from Antropov, who continued to play a strong game for the Leafs.
With time winding down and the Leafs on the power play, Dean McAmmond was able to score on a drive when his centering pass luckily caromed in off the Leaf defender's skate. With seconds to play and up by one, Toskala stood strong and the Leafs were able to put the Sens on ice.
For the Leafs, this game is similar to the win over Boston, and shows that an identity is forming for this young club. Playing the Western Conference style of coach Ron Wilson, the Leafs are proving to be a very difficult team to play against.
They are fast, feisty and, despite not possessing exceptional scoring talent, have not been out of many games this year. They may have only three wins, but they also have only two losses in regulation time.
For the Sens, one gets the sense that they expect things to be way easier than they are in today's NHL. Alfredsson in particular was almost invisible, and one wonders how the team can continue to struggle with the talent they have.
Judging by the results tonight, hard work will beat skill if the skilled team isn't working for it. Just like in grade school gym class.