TORONTO - They’ve re-made the movie True Grit this Christmas and Ron Wilson should be herding his team to a matinee showing.
As one of the NHL’s youngest and smallest teams, especially at the forward positions, there will still be nights when they need to play big and bold and Saturday night’s 4-1 loss to the Canucks was a perfect example.
Roberto Luongo looked a little rattled at the start, the Sedin Twins were quiet and yet the Leafs couldn’t or wouldn’t take advantage. Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg threatened early, but after both missed great chances, each was rattled by a heavy hit and was thrown off their game.
The Leafs chose this path for the roster in the immediate future, hoping that speed and a scoring touch would see them through. But even when they try to shake up players who don’t commit to grit, such as benching Nazem Kadri against the Canucks, the message doesn’t filter through.
Yes, the Leafs do have people who will go to the net (Nikolai Kulemin earned one of two goal-interference penalties), but they had enough opportunities to get one past Luongo and change the game’s complexion. The power play had little going for it and during a second-period minor, the Canucks pinned the puck to the boards and watched Leafs harmlessly bounce off them like ping-pong balls for a good 30 seconds. The size differential also manifests itself on faceoffs where the Leafs are suffering of late.
The exception? Centre Mikhail Grabovski, who is channelling his anger in the right direction this season — at the other team. He scored again on Saturday.
When players such as Versteeg, and big defencemen Mike Komisarek and Dion Phaneuf compound the problem with needless penalties, then it’s no surprise the Leafs are around 10 points out of a playoff spot with four teams to pass and 2011 coming up fast on the calendar.
Saturday night’s victory was the Canucks’ eighth straight against the Leafs. Toronto is 1-2 on this road trip and 4-7 against Canadian teams this season. Last year, thanks mostly to seven wins against Ottawa and Montreal, the Leafs were a respectable 8-7-3.
But in the West, results of the most recent trip drops Toronto to 3-9 on the road against Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary since the end of the lockout. The good news? Just two games against Canadian clubs in January.
Luke Schenn was a minus-3, but had some tough luck on a couple of plays ... Another great set-up from Clarke MacArthur, who is showing a creative side to his game that few thought existed. With the assist on the Grabovski goal, that’s 16, his most in his three full NHL seasons ... The Leafs have just 19 first-period goals in 32 games, which was 28th in the league coming into the Vancouver game. That stat didn’t change, despite a near-minute long 5-on-3 advantage ... How much did the Canucks have to pay Hurley from Lost to sing O Canada? ... No surnames on those Canucks anniversary sweaters. Did the ghost of Harold Ballard whisper to GM Mike Gillis that it’s bad for program sales? ... Last time Toronto beat Vancouver, eight games ago, Gary Roberts was a bull on offence and Ed Belfour sparkled in net ... Jonas Gustavsson, who had a strong game overall, can say he was beaten by an active hall of famer on the first goal. Alex Burrows was named to the Canadian Ball Hockey Hall earlier this year ... Those annoying Green Men taunted Leafs in the penalty box with a box of Eggos and a sign that ‘draft picks for sale’ ... Good line by HNIC’s Jim Hughson after Versteeg lipped off to the referee hrough his dangling mouthguard and received an extra two minutes: “He should learn to keep that thing in there.”