Bruins spoil Leafs playoff party

Isn’t it always the way. You wait nine years, bursting with anticipation and your team lets you down.

The Leafs put in a strong effort overall. As coach Randy Carlyle keeps harping on, it was turnovers that really were the difference in this game — two to be precise. A smart play by 41-year old Jaromir Jagr who stole the puck off Ryan O’Byrne and quickly fed it to Rich Peverley gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead. But the real back-breaker was Kessel’s giveaway in the second at the Leafs blueline that Daniel Paille beat James Reimer on for a short-handed goal left the Leafs trailing 4-1, taking the buzz out of the hometown crowd.

Thousands of Leafs fans gathered in Maple Leafs Square for the first home playoff game in nine years.

Thousands of Leafs fans gathered in Maple Leafs Square for the first home playoff game in nine years.

To anyone watching the game, it wasn’t a repeat of the Leafs hapless 4-1 opening loss to the Bruins despite the 5-2 outcome. It was a couple of miscues that Boston pounced on and made the Leafs pay. Hey, sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t. Not that Tuukka Rask played anything less than stellar but he should’ve thanked the two goal posts the Leafs hit that harmlessly deflected the rubber the right way for him. A game of inches as they say.

Surprisingly, Toronto outshot the Bruins 47-38 — a season high — and it came during a playoff game against the Boston Bruins for pete’s sake. In the third down three, Toronto got 18 pucks on net to the Bruins six. So while they didn’t manage to capitalize, it’s a good sign. The Bruins have that vaunted depth so talked about where they can roll out four lines and it’s making life tough for the Toronto defence. Their offence is also rounding into form, especially David Krejci who quietly already has eight points in this series. Milan Lucic also seems to be shaking off a season-long slump while Jagr is displaying flashes of his old self with masterful puck control in the Leafs end.

But back to the underlying story — the pre-game atmosphere around the Air Canada Centre was giddy, a festival atmosphere with several thousand turning Maple Leafs Square into a sea of Blue and White . The mixture of sun, celebration and anticipation came through loud and clear on the gigantic video board and on the HNIC broadcast. It was reminiscent of the 2011 Vancouver fan frenzy during their playoff run.

Most fans were just happy to be there and be part of the first playoff game in nine years in Toronto. Winning a game at home would just be a bonus to the experience of coming together as Leafs Nation when it really matters. They were disappointed the home side didn’t prevail but they get at least one more chance Wednesday in Game 4 to perhaps supply that X-factor and get back in this thing.

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Playoff fever returns to Toronto

Toronto mayor Rob Ford declared Monday Blue and White day in honour of the Maple Leafs return to the post-season.

Personally I don’t care what His Doofus declares since he does so on a regular basis and often incoherently.

City official endorsements aside, there is much anticipation in the air, fuelled by the multiple channels of media that only the Centre of the Hockey Universe can muster. The Leafs “pre-game” show began at the crack of dawn with wall-to-wall coverage to feed the public every tiny morsel of Leafs news.

Then there’s my little blog here to add to the already full pile but we like to think it’s a most pleasant read.

At any rate, it’s the first Leafs playoff game in the city in nine years. Many of us may think back to what we were doing back in May 2004. The general feeling is that its been a really, really long time between playoff games in these parts though for me it’s always “Where the hell did the time go?”

Giddy Leafs fans excited to see the team back in a playoff game after a nine-year drought.

Giddy Leafs fans excited to see the team back in a playoff game after a nine-year drought.

Year after year of watching the playoffs my thoughts drifted occasionally into how fantastic it would be to be part of this. It seemed a bit surreal, at least highly improbable. Our team, our city, was decidedly a city of losers. We couldn’t even win for all our losing and secure a lottery draft pick.

Meantime, other burgs took their appearance in the playoffs practically as a given — Detroit, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Boston, Pittsburgh, San Jose — even Phoenix managed a few post-season berths over these nine years for crying out loud. We couldn’t even compete with Phoenix! A city so undeserving of an NHL franchise by reasons of geography and outright disinterest — even they did better playoff-wise than the iconic Maple Leafs.

Yet here we are in the centre of the hockey universe and year after year we never even managed to creep into the lowest seed. Always on the outside. Always failure. Just plain losers.

And now here we are. For real.

I think many fans are still tentative after living with the loser mentality for so long. Yes we’re extremely happy that we’ve made it but it still feels a bit foreign and strange. Like a new pair of shoes that need a break-in period.

But now that it’s Game 3, those shoes need to do full-time duty. The Leafs are returning confident and rejuvenated after an inspired bounce-back game Saturday in Boston. We know now that the team belongs in these playoffs after a shaky start and on a given night, with them firing on all cylinders, they can beat the best of them.

However, for the playoff juices to really get flowing in this town, this series is still looking for that dominating storyline to fixate on and focus the attention. Some magical, egregious, outstanding or controversial incident that would set the tongue-wagging into overdrive. Something preferably that would incite revenge, that turns a series into one of those legendary battles that completely enthralls us and lives on in our memories.

Remember the Darcy Tucker hit on Mike Peca in the 2002 Islanders series? How that became a defining moment of the series? Or the Tie Domi suspension on New Jersey’s Scott Niedermayer in ’01. And to those who were around, who could forget the ’93 playoff run for the ages with Doug Gilmour as the ferocious leader of a team that captured a city. And of course any playoff series against the Sens who always managed to make the Leafs look good no matter where they finished in the regular season.

Speaking of which, take the Ottawa-Montreal series. It’s now escalated into a spat between coaches after a fight-filled Game 3 following the controversial Eric Gryba hit on Lars Eller in the opener that set everything off.

The Leafs-Boston series is still searching for that compelling storyline or issue. It doesn’t need to involve blood, violence or fights either. It could be a controversial call, a terrible or outstanding play, trash-talking, Tweeting… whatever. If we truly want that delicious playoff drama hockey fans and pundits crave at this time of year, we need the Hockey Gods to work their magic. That said, we should be careful what we ask for as it could come back to bite us.

Enjoy your Blue and White day and do your thing to celebrate and support this team.

It may not come around again for a long time.

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Carlyle and Leafs make strong statement with comeback win

Whether the Toronto Maple Leafs win another game in this series or go deep into the playoffs, Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins has to go down as one of the best team accomplishments of the season.

If the Leafs do fail to win another game, at least we’ll have that one Saturday night in May where reputations were formed, and demons exorcised against a team that’s owned them.

leafs_bruins3

The Toronto Maple Leafs bounced back with a strong performance in Game 2 vs the Boston Bruins, tying their series 1-1 with a 4-2 victory.

That Phil Kessell finally scored what proved to be the winner against the Boston Bruins at even strength on an electrifying breakaway from the stick of Nazem Kadri was alone worth the price of admission if you’re a Leaf’s fan. Kessel’s joyful smile and celebration on the bench was the manifestation of one huge monkey slipping off the back the Leafs’ sniper and bodes well going forward. It gave them a 3-1 lead early in the third and energized them the rest of the way. From a Leafs standpoint, the biggest goal of the series both symbolically and in terms of a momentum shift. As Leafs’ play-by-play man Joe Bowen bellowed as only he can, “Thank-you Kessel!” a shot back at the relentless taunting by the Bruins’ faithful at their former player.

While Kessel’s goal was the emotional high point of the game from a Leafs’ standpoint, their bounce-back performance was definitely a total team effort that saw skill and grit on this night.

Joffrey Lupul alertly and skillfully scored the first two goals from the rough areas while James Van Riemsdyk artfully corralled the puck behind him while off balance, banking it off Tuukka Rask for an insurance goal. Nice stuff.

But much of the credit for the rebound, as Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons points out, belonged to Randy Carlyle.  With the help of his staff, he took a whipped bunch of mostly playoff virgins and gave them the confidence to execute a game plan that rose to the matchup challenge the Bruins pose. He’s managed to do it for much of the year with the exception of the last three weeks of the regular season where the team couldn’t seem to find that extra gear. But they found it again last night.

The insertion of four fresh bodies in the lineup by Carlyle paid dividends with three of them, Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin and Ryan Hamilton scoring points. But as part of his strategy, Carlyle exercised patience as well.  Instead of nailing Gardiner to the bench after he coughed up a blatant giveaway which James Reimer bailed him out on, Carlyle kept using him and Gardiner played a solid game the rest of the way. If he continues on that track, his speed will give the Bruins some headaches.

Matt Frattin also returned and his impact while not spectacular, was noticeable making each shift count doing all the so-called little things to thwart the Bruins and provide some offence from the third line.

But where Carlyle deserves most credit was his creative use of Phil Kessel, inserting him on different lines and taking him out of his comfort zone, playing him at times on left wing to avoid his nemesis, the Giant — Zdeno Chara. (my topic for Friday’s column).

Carlyle’s tinkering and strategies seemed to catch Bruins’ coach Claude Julien a little off guard, maybe even exasperate him a bit.

Now Julien and the Bruins find themselves with a challenge on their hands: A seasoned, strategic coach to match wits with and a rejuvenated squad that as Game 2 showed, is capable of carrying out his game plan.

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Long wait between games could benefit Leafs

With the Canadiens tying their series with Ottawa after an inspirational 3-1 win following the ugliness of the Lars Eller incident, it got me thinking: Was it better to play another game the next night and plough straight ahead despite the controversy and ensuing fallout?

Had there been a three-day break between games as there is in the Leafs-Boston series, the Ellers fallout may have been blown up to much more volatile proportions in a hockey hothouse like Montreal.

But the NHL’s two-game suspension handed down by Brendan Shanahan to Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba, helped kicked the legs out from under the issue. From an optics standpoint, justice appears to have been done, surprising many hockey commentators who thought the hit a legitimate hockey play that wouldn’t result in supplementary discipline. At any rate, a good hockey game was played and any apparent hostilities and shenanigans were kept to a minimum.

For some strange scheduling reason, the Canadiens-Sens series has had the only back-to-back games out of all the playoff matchups and for the reasons cited, the timing proved propitious.

By contrast, does having a longer break between games benefit the Leafs’ fortunes? Will having an extra day distance them from their sad Game 1 effort while at the same time taking some air out of the Bruins’ momentum?

The Maple Leafs hope to adopt a better game plan for Game 2 of the opening playoff series against the Bruins.

The Maple Leafs hope to adopt a better game plan for Game 2 of the opening playoff series against the Bruins.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t many statistics kept of how this favours teams positively or negatively whether you’re following a great performance or trying to re-group from a bad one.

Obviously a longer break would be an advantage in helping heal players’ bumps and bruises as in the case for Cody Franzen who suffered a bruised foot. It won’t really do much for Mike Kosta’s broken finger that will likely turn into a season-ending injury for him.

Of course those injuries open the door for one or both of Jake Gardiner and Ryan O’Byrne to be in the line-up. Despite his much publicized defensive deficiencies in his own zone, there’s no denying Gardiner’s skating and his ability to get it out of his own zone once he’s given some room — was something sorely lacking in Game 1. O’Byrne provides size, toughness and is more of a stay-at-home type so Carlyle should just pick one from column A and one from column B and get over it. The Leafs are fortunate to have those options.

Roster diversions aside, the extra day should help the Leafs. It’s more difficult to keep great momentum going after a break; it’s just plain harder to raise your game to an extremely high level not to mention have some bounces go your way.

The Leafs meantime have nowhere to go but up from their Game 1 performance. To the credit of the team’s coaching staff, the gloom of Wednesday’s defeat appears to have hung fairly lightly on their shoulders because to a player, they all know they are capable of more.

Prediction:  Expect a much closer, competitive game from the Leafs. Even a one-goal loss in Game 2 will serve as a good character-builder as they head home for Game 3 on Monday.

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Somebody help Kessel – please!

You have to feel for Phil Kessel.

The reluctant star finds himself thrust into the limelight as these playoffs progress. The bright lights and inquiring media minds who want to know only make his eyes squint and mouth utter those now familiarly bland, monotone answers to his breathless questioners.

With the Maple Leafs finding themselves a game down to a rejuvenated Bruins squad, the calls for Kessel to step it up as the Leafs premier scorer are growing. For Kessel, there’s no better time to cement his reputation as a clutch guy among Toronto fans and media than right now. It’s when the men are separated from the boys and all that stuff.

Trouble is, Phil Kessel really is more of a boy. A boy who happens to have a few extraordinary gifts of speed and a snap shot to die for.

There's got to be a better way: Zdeno Chara presents a huge matchup problem for Leafs' best scorer Phil Kessel.

There’s got to be a better way: Zdeno Chara presents a huge matchup problem for Leafs’ best scorer Phil Kessel.

But what he doesn’t have is the heart of a lion nor the courage of Richard III.

For Kessel, talented as he is, to suddenly overcome his arch enemy, giant Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, is frankly too much of an ask. In Kessel’s psyche, Chara might as well be seven-foot-nine instead of the 6′-9″ he actually is given the lack of success Kessel’s had against him.

As the evidence has painfully shown, Kessel’s been a flop at trying to slay the Giant. The  amped up intensity of the playoffs isn’t going to change this fact. Demanding that the Leafs’ sniper find a novel way of beating his Boston nemesis — well I wouldn’t hang my hat on it. As the expression goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

Of course it’s not insane to keep trying — what else is there? But maybe here’s where his teammates and coach can get creative and try a couple of things to get the Giant off his game to help the Leafs top scorer.

Now would be the time for someone else to rise to the challenge and try to mess with the Giant. How about a Kulemin or Komorov or maybe Fraser McLaren to distract the beast, throw him off his game a bit, soften him up so he’s not so brutal on Kessel. The Leafs have a couple of strong, capable wingers and if it means some switching to overcome an unfair matchup problem, why not try that? Could the results be worse than the past? Chara plays 30+ minutes a night. Do more things to make him feel every minute of it. Make him skate, make him bodycheck, send more bodies to his zone. Even Giants can be brought down or gotten the better of. If the Leafs can do that at least in part, then other dominoes may fall.

Sure the home team gets the last change but it may still be worth a try.

Speaking of switches, what about moving Kessel to the left wing, switching with Van Riemsdyk, just to get him away from the immediate vicinity of Chara? Kessel plays the left side on the power play effectively using that move off the half boards and firing a quick snapshot. Why not try it at even strength?

Granted, these armchair strategies are a bit radical to suggest being the playoffs and all. Zdeno Chara is only one part of a tough Bruins team who give the Leafs matchup headaches. But it may be time to throw a curve to at least give your best player some relief from a nemesis who’s owned him over the years. Such a move may be interpreted as Carlyle throwing up the white flag in the Kessel-Chara matchup but trying such an approach might just pay some rewards.

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Leafs pounded in playoff debut

After a nine-year wait, it wasn’t a very auspicious start to the playoffs for the Leafs.

The Leafs went down 4-1 to the Bruins who outplayed, outmuscled and mercilessly pounded the youthful upstarts, supplying a stark reality check. Mikhail Grabovski in particular had a rough night suffering an Andrew Ference elbow to the head and was woozy after being plastered into the glass late in the game by Johnny Boychuk. Ference faces a hearing later today as a result of his questionable hit. But it’s really more of a statement that the Bruins came to play hard; something the Leafs had no answers to. Kessel pulled his usual disappearing act facing his old team while #2 scorer Nazem Kadri looked completely overmatched.

The Bruins celebrate a goal in dominant 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs in game one of their playoff series.

The Bruins celebrate a goal in dominant 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs in game one of their playoff series.

Toronto now has to re-group for game two Saturday and return with a much improved game plan or this series could be done in a week. The Leafs have shown this season they are resilient and have often followed ugly losses with strong efforts.

We’ll see.

Maybe it was opening night jitters and the piled up expectations of a pent-up hockey market after such a long playoff drought that contributed to the overall ugliness of their effort.

The flaws that have hampered the Leafs of late were even more exposed by the Bruins’ aggressive play. The month-long trend of being outshot by the opposition continued with the home team outshooting the Leafs 40-20. The two-to-one margin allowed the Bruins some alarmingly wide open shots and scoring chances on frequent turnovers — you could almost see the steam coming out of Randy Carlyle’s ears. The book on Reimer was obviously read by the Bruins — shoot high glove as Johnny Boychuk demonstrated for the fourth Boston goal, a save Reimer needed to make to stave off the nail-in-the-coffin goal.

Expect some changes on the defensive end as Mike Kostka in particular appeared not quite ready for playoff paced hockey. To be fair, so did most of this young Leafs team, 11 of whom got their first taste of the post season last night. Experience for this group is extremely thin compared with a playoff-hardened Bruins squad still living on the vapours of their Stanley Cup win two years ago.

Despite the Bruins drift into the post-season, they’ve obviously found the reset button turning up fierce and ready for the playoffs. Last night they looked a lot more like the 17-3-3 team that began the season, rather than the 2-7 one down the stretch. If it’s the former version, these Maple Leafs can congratulate themselves on being invited to the dance but unfortunately won’t be staying very long.

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Let the show begin: Leafs Nation ready to rock

A warm hello to all the readers who’ve stumbled upon my little blog where I put in my two cents worth about hockey, mostly Leafs. This is a special time of course for die-hard Leafs’ fans as they are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years. I will be chronicling their fortunes, following the storylines and hopefully adding colour and humour to what’s sure to be a roller-coaster of a ride for all hockey fans. Whether the beloved Buds go down in four straight or make an implausibly long playoff run, check this space for a refreshing spin on all things Leafs.

— Rolf

Game One — May 1. Leafs vs Bruins in Boston.

What a great day it is to be a Leafs fan. The calendar has flipped to May, a gorgeous day in Southern Ontario and the Leafs, finally, finally! take the ice tonight in their first playoff game since 2004. About as good as it gets. You could make the argument that facing the Canadiens in the first round would have been even sweeter but let’s not split hairs: The Leafs are in the post-season and that fact is almost so surreal that it’s barely sunk in.

Amid all this sweet anticipation is also a little anxiety. Past season series against the Bruins have not gone well for the Leafs but this season Boston, just two years removed from a formidable Stanley Cup win, do not look as scary. Toronto posted a 1-2-1 record this season vs the Bruins, losing in a shootout in one of the losses.  Under Randy Carlyle, they’ve closed the competitive gap and refuse to be pushed around by anyone including the bruising Bruins who just aren’t as intimidating as they were a short time ago. That said, most give the physical edge to Boston but only slightly. We all know the stats — how the Leafs led the league in fighting majors and tough guys Colton Orr, Fraser McLaren and Mark Fraser aren’t afraid to drop the gloves with anyone. Whether Orr or McLaren will be in the line-up regularly — given fighting takes a back seat in the playoffs to productivity — remains to be seen. But you never know with Carlyle, a coach who believes teams need a mean streak to be successful.

There are of course many other questions and storylines that will unfold over the course of the series.

Will Phil Kessel finally build on his 52-point season and step out of the shadow cast by Zdeno Chara who has owned him in head-to-head match-ups? Or will he once again disappear and continue to frustrate Leafs’ fans?

Will James Reimer pass the test of being a legitimate #1 goaltender against these Bruins?

Does Nazem Kadri find his scoring touch again after cooling off this month?

Will the defence manage to cut down on turnovers? Will Mikhail Grabovski be a player or non-factor as he’s mostly been all season? Will Tyler Bozak’s injury reduce his effectiveness? Can Joffrey Lupul find his scorching scoring touch he had in between injuries and suspensions?

So many intriguing questions that will be answered in one form or another. It all begins tonight. Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs Leafs fans. Settle in for a wild ride.

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