(pictured: Joffrey Lupul is fifth in the NHL scoring race)
Toronto’s 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday was a near-perfect representation of both the team’s strengths that propelled them to the top of the NHL standings in October, and the club’s weaknesses that has seen their playoff position slip to a perilous eighth-place in the Eastern Conference.
Good news for the Leafs: They have a potent scoring line in Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, each of whom scored in the game. Kessel and Lupul were first and fifth respectively in the Art Ross Trophy chase as of Sunday morning.
Bad news for the Leafs: They’re not getting enough production from any other forwards. Credit goes to Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo – the Christmas Grinch who stole goals from Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly. However Toronto’s lack of secondary scoring isn’t solely the result of facing All-Star goalies. After 32 games, their leading point-getter not playing on the top line is actually a defenceman – Dion Phaneuf.
Good news for the Leafs: Their power-play, led by the top line plus Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles on the points is second-best in the league, and connected on their only opportunity on Saturday,
Bad news for the Leafs: The team hasn’t been effective in preventing goals. Their 104 goals against is two more than their total at this time last season when they eventually finished tied for 24th in the league in that category. On each of Vancouver’s first three goals, a different Leafs defence pair was on the ice, and in all three instances a defender didn’t look behind him to find the eventual goal scorer.
Good news for the Leafs: They have adequate goaltending. Leaf Nation was swept in collective panic when James Reimer – the man who fueled Toronto’s playoff hopes last season – was lost to injury prior to Decmber, but Jonas Gustavsson has performed admirably. With Reimer on the bench Saturday after having played the previous night, Gustavsson made several difficult stops in an effort to match his counterpart Luongo who was putting on a clinic of his own.
Bad news for the Leafs: They don’t have top-notch quality goaltending. As well as Gustavsson has played, he wouldn’t be on many observers’ lists of netminders that you’d want to start a must-win game. The 27-year-old Swede who they call “The Monster” scares Air Canada Centre fans with a tendency to surrender at least one stoppable shot per game. On Saturday, the moment came late in the third period when Jannik Hansen came in on a breakaway and the Canucks leading by one. Gustavsson committed down low too early to give up the insurance marker. “I needed to stop that fifth goal to give our team a chance,” said Gustavsson after the game. “(Hansen) was coming in at high speed, and it was a good chance, but as a goalie you need to step up and save them.”
If there is any part of the defeat – the Leafs ninth straight to Vancouver coming out of the 2005 lockout – that does not accurately reflect Toronto’s season, it’s the penalty-kill.
The good news is that the Leafs were able to thwart the Canucks only man-advantage. The bad news is that it was an aberration. In the previous three games, Toronto had allowed 8 power-play goals in 15 opportunities. Their 73.2% efficiency ranks last in the NHL, and is 1.4% below their rating for the 2009-10 season when it was the worst in the league.
When asked if he was concerned about the Leafs’ sixth defeat in their past eight games, head coach Ron Wilson said “We’re right where I thought where we would be, we’ve just got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s as simple as that.”
The game played in front of 19,633 spectators embodies just about everything that the Leafs have to earn, or lose, their first post-lockout playoff berth.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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