North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘tmltalk

Now That The Choke Job’s Over

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Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a hockey game for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even up here, I could hear the collective exhale: maybe this season isn’t a wash after all.

Over the end of March, the Leafs dropped eight games in a row, slowly sliding down the playoff bracket until they dropped off it completely. As far as losing streaks go, it was an interesting one: the Leafs lost close and they lost big but in every loss, they didn’t even pick up a point. Going by that measure, it was their worst streak since the mid-80s, when the team was a perennial doorstop, played in a decaying arena out by College Station and a guy named Harold Ballard owned the team.

Trust me, it’s been fun: when I plowed through a crossword puzzle during the Detroit/Toronto game, I realized I was more interested in a seven-letter word for Tea Time than if Phil Kessel scored a goal. It helped with my reading too: with the game on in the background, I’ve been plowing through Robert Caro’s The Master of the Senate, only occasionally glancing up to look at the score (“Oh, it’s 3-1 Detroit, what did Dion Phaneuf do now?”). Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by M.

April 2, 2014 at 11:31 am

Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Two Game Sevens In the City

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It’s an interesting day today, as the two hockey teams I enjoy watching both have game sevens tonight: the Barrie Colts have game seven of the OHL Finals in London while the Toronto Maple Leafs play game seven of their first round series in Boston. Both games are at the same time, so it’s going to take some creative remote-work to fit them both in, but it’ll be worth the effort.

It’s been a while since I felt so invested in a hockey game. Long enough that I don’t have anything in my archive here I can easily compare it to. I suppose there’s this 2006 post and another from 2007, but both were about the regular season. I’ve written here since 2005, which is just enough time to cover the Leafs postseason gap. So this is new and uncharted territory for this organ.

The first round’s been a mix of rad James Reimer goaltending and Tuukka Rask looking either impregnable  or soft. The series opened with four games with the winning team scored at least four goals, including an overtime game that I regrettably fell asleep watching (because I’m an old man). But in the last two games, it’s  tightened up considerably: games five and six were 2-1 affairs, each won by the Leafs.

They’ve been nerve-wrecking affairs, especially last night when Toronto didn’t score until the second and Phil Kessel put in the eventual game-winner on what looked like a giant fluke: a rebound that bounced to a rushing Kessel, who flipped it into an open net. As I might have said back in my sportswriting days, he took advantage of an opportunity. And truth be told, I didn’t think there was a great many of them; Boston’s defence has been pretty strong through six games and mostly kept Toronto’s scorers in check. For example, through six games, Kadri’s picked up just two assists and hasn’t scored on any of his 13 shots on net; this season, he scored on nearly 17 per cent, fourth-highest on the team.

At the same time, Reimer’s had a bunch of good games. His save percentage is tied with Rask at .932, despite having more goals allowed. This comes from how Reimer’s been peppered with shots through every game: the 237 shots he’s faced is most of any goalie so far. He’s had four games where he faced at least 40 shots and the 43-save performance in game five was one of the best Leaf goaltending performances in recent memory. It’s an easy thing to say about goalies, but he’s been the best Leaf on the ice for nearly every game so far. Watching him this spring has been a blast.

About an hour north of Toronto, the Barrie Colts have also gone through a tear this postseason. They  made quick work of both Kingston and Oshawa, but the series against Belleville was wild, with games swinging back and forth and both Malcolm Subban and Mathias Niederberger making big saves. Two of those games went to overtime and Barrie nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, including a third-period collapse in game six. But they won game seven on the road and moved to the OHL Finals, facing the London Knights.

You may remember how good the Knights were this season. Earlier this year, they went on a tear through the OHL, winning 24 games in a row. They’d finish the regular season with 50 wins, most in the league. Until the finals, they’d lost just two games in the postseason (one of them in double OT) and had two of the league’s best scorers in Max Domi and Bo Horvat, who have combined for 25 goals in 20 games. That’s a pretty good pace.

But Barrie’s has its own scoring monster: Mark Scheifele. Through this postseason he’s come into his own, scoring 41 points in 21 games. The other night, he scored four times in the third period as the Colts came from behind to win. He’s been a beast all season, especially after he returned from a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets. More than anyone else in the series, he’s stood out on the ice: number 19 is usually the guy with the puck and almost always the tallest guy on the ice. Even if Barrie loses tonight, he deserves serious consideration for series MVP.

In all, it’s a blast for as fair-weather a hockey as myself. I mentioned it earlier this season, but this year I’ve really dived into the OHL and this Colts team has been a blast. For one, Scheifele’s one of those players who’s bigger than everyone else and can just dominate on the ice. But there’s also Niederberger, who’s been a standout in net (.927 save percentage and two shutouts) and Zach Hall, who’s picked up 20 points in 18 games. There’s also Anthony Camara, who’s hitting is questionable at best.

These Colts have been a great team to get into junior hockey through; I certainly hope they advance to the Memorial Cup, but I’d be satisfied no matter tonight’s result.

Same thing for the Leafs. It’s been so long since they’ve played a playoff game that I’m just happy they’re even in the postseason at all. That Reimer’s been so much to watch and extended this series to seven games is a bonus. I’m nervous about the games, but it’s a nice feeling. I haven’t felt this way about hockey in a long time.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

What can the Leafs point steak tell us about their 2013 postseason?

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It’s been a while since I weighed in on the Leafs, I suppose with good reason: there wasn’t much I wanted to say. They were good, for a while and then, for another while, they were not good. As March started, they dropped five games in a row, including shootout losses to Pittsburgh and Winnipeg that drove my creative lobes into an apoplexy. It didn’t help this went alongside the Raptors also bottoming out and blowing their infinitesimally small chances at a postseason spot.

But like I said, things have gotten better. The Leafs have won a few games and even when they lost, they’re still getting the NHL’s Loser Point. Indeed, starting with that shootout loss to Winnipeg, the Leafs have picked up at least one point per game. That’s a seven-game stretch, their best such stretch of the season. Let’s break it down a little:

  • March 16, Winnipeg @ Toronto: The Jets explode toa  4-1 lead in the second period, but Toronto comes back and ties the game. They lose in the tenth round of the shootout.
  • March 20, Tampa Bay @ Toronto: The Leafs win 4-2, although the Lightning rally for two goals in the third. Kadri picks up three assists, too.
  • March 21, Toronto @ Buffalo: a back and forth game, tied for good with Kadri’s third period goal. The shootout again goes deep (six rounds this time) and again, Toronto comes out on the short end.
  • March 23, Boston @ Toronto: Toronto leads most of the game but Boston rallies late, scoring two goals and pressuring for an equalizer as the third period ends. I think it was Phaneuf who made a game-saving puck clear. Toronto beats the Bruins for the first time in a couple of seasons. Kadri scores again, too.
  • March 25, Toronto @ Boston: Toronto goes ahead 2-0 in the second, but Boston ties the game up and it goes to a shootout. Characteristically, the Leafs lose.
  • March 26, Florida @ Toronto: another back and forth game, this time won by Toronto.
  • March 28, Carolina @ Toronto: the Leafs were down 3-2 in the third period but scored four unanswered late goals. Lupul’s third period goal was a beauty, too.

Notice any trends? I’m nowhere near as smart a hockey guy as Cam Charron and the guys at Leafs Nation, but even I’ve picked up a couple: Toronto’s had a nice stretch of home games, played some weak competition (Carolina, Tampa and Florida are all probably going to miss the postseason) and can’t win on the road. They’ve struggled late, too and been lucky to escape in a few games (the home win over Boston comes to mind). It’s a stretch where their goaltending has carried them, although it’s nice to see Kadri still performing pretty well.

A side question: if we’re picking a team MVP to this point, where do we look? Kadri leads the team in points and has been a standout all season. Over at McKeen’s Hockey, he was listed as one of the 30 best scorers in the NHL today. And looking at advanced stats, he’s been pretty good: he leads the team in Point Shares and, as of this writing, has a Corsi Relative of 13.9. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind about these Leafs is how good their goaltending’s been: both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have played great all season long, keeping Toronto in a bunch of games where the defence either melted down late or just wasn’t there to begin with. I feel like all season long, Toronto’s been outshot. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think it’s worth noting that both Scrivens and Reimer are among the top 20 goalies in save percentage – although both Ottawa and Chicago are too, with better numbers to boot.

It all comes together for a question that’s been percolating at the back of my mind for a while now: which Toronto is going to be in the postseason? They haven’t clinched a spot yet, but they’re basically a given at this point (one website has their chances at nearly 98 per cent, which feels about right). Are we going to see the team that struggles late? That can’t control the puck early? That melts down and has scrambles in the last two minutes? That’s more or less been the standard lately, especially against decent teams.

And in the postseason there isn’t going to be a shootout: so what will the overtimes be like? Toronto’s struggled in the shootout, usually carried by whomever’s in net. Will their overtimes be like that: long, mostly in the Leafs end and ending with distraught calls to all three of the Leafs postgame radio shows (what I like to call the Gary from Scarborough hat trick). I don’t know, but that’s what I’m inclined to believe.

Does it sound morbid to say I can’t wait?

Written by M.

March 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm