September 20, 2011
Leafs off to good startDouble-up Senators at ACC
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Maple Leafs didn’t need a close-up view of the NHL’s new goal verification line to verify where they must go for success in 2011-12.
Toronto, or at least its split squad of forwards, went to the experimental shallow-back nets in force on Monday night out-chancing Ottawa and not relying on just one line to do so.
That allowed it to survive some own-zone breakdowns in a 4-2 win at the Air Canada Centre, the first of eight pre-season games to find an offence comparable to the teams they’re chasing for playoff spots in the Northeast Division.
Tyler Bozak, whom many thought would be lost without Phil Kessel on his line, had a three-point night with Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong. With Tim Connolly and the new-look first unit taking the night off, Bozak and company were the go-to group from start to finish.
And following coach Ron Wilson’s edict to get more involved, the defence produced one power-play goal by Carl Gunnarsson and two Jake Gardiner assists. Gardiner showed flashes of his breakout ability, but was also conscious defensively.
John-Michael Liles, wearing Bryan McCabe’s old No. 24, but taking Tomas Kaberle’s place as power-play architect, dished a couple of nice pucks and partner Dion Phaneuf, with a second or two to work with, seemed to have his scattergun slap shot under better control in the chances afforded him. Phaneuf added his own assist later. Matt Lashoff’s bank pass to Bozak made it five points for Toronto’s defence. In the last pre-season, the whole group produced just two goals in nine games.
But giving the green light to the blueliners is easier said than done. If they don’t cash in at one end, it can lead to problems at the other.
“Jumping in is a strength of my game, but you have a lot of other guys with that ability here,” newcomer Liles said. “Jake played a fantastic game tonight and at times it felt like I was the (slow) one hanging back. We had to double-check every time to make sure one of us stayed back. We tried to make it through the game without any major flaws.
“It’s going to be a learning process, getting comfortable with everybody and building a relationship with Dion on the point of the power play. He had some great shots tonight, even though a couple I fed him weren’t exactly in his wheelhouse.”
Armstrong noted how loud the defence were in their banter, which aided communication throughout line changes.
“When we were rolling off the cycle or pulling up, we cold find them, they were yelling,” Armstrong said. “When you have young guys like Jake coming up, it’s exciting. We had good looks with Dion, Gunner and our whole D jumping in.”
The Leafs and Senators were in the bottom 10 teams of scoring last season and Toronto put particular emphasis on putting more pucks on goal.
Connolly, expected to make his debut Tuesday, was brought in for $9.5 million US the next two years. He should be better suited lomg-term for the role than Bozak. Having seen the writing on the wall at the end of last season, Bozak spent the bulk of summer getting mentally prepared for a third-line role, beefing up and working out exclusively on a unit with Armstrong and Kadri.
“Summer was too long for sure,” Bozak said. “Your confidence gets down pretty low and I hadn’t dealt with that a lot in my career.
“We had some extra time to find chemistry between the three of us. Army slows the play down great comes in late and Naz is so skilled. But it’s exhibition and this doesn’t mean a whole lot. We really have to keep going here.”
Armstrong noted he was playing with a broken foot at this time last year, the start of a litany of injuries that helped sour the whole season. But as the veteran on the line, the right winger can do a bit of everything to help the other two.
“They’re both fast and gritty,” Armstrong noted. “With Bozie, you want a centre man who can read the play like he does. A couple of times I was sloppy with the puck and he was right there with support.”
The second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur started the game, and did a good job setting up a screen for Gunnarsson on his strike.
“If we can have three lines that can score,” Wilson ventured, “every team would love that. If this works out in the season, it would be nice to know we have three lines that could be dangerous.”