The other night after the Maple Leafs defeated the New Jersey Devils in beautiful downtown Newark, coach Ron Wilson noted that the media were getting picky with some post-game questioning.
The Leafs had just played a nice and tight third period against the Devils, limiting their opponents to few scoring chances. That happened after the defence appeared to go on auto pilot in the second period.
But not all of the queries were about the good things the Leafs did, and Wilson called reporters on it.
Toronto sits atop the Eastern Conference — and possibly the National Hockey League, depending on the Chicago Blackhawks’ outcome against the Tampa Bat Lightning on Friday night — with a 9-3-1 record and 19 points, as many as the Pittsburgh Penguins but in first place given they’ve played one less game than the Penguins and have one more win.
But the Leafs aren’t looking down on everyone else without a care in the world. There are legitimate concerns, and that’s okay. Would hate for these guys to get complacent in the first week of November.
The easy way out would be to say, “Who cares? They’re in first place and all is good.”
Fact is, though, this is Toronto. We’re not accustomed to first-place teams, so no matter where the Leafs are in the standings, there has to be something somewhere that they can improve on.
The penalty killers erased all four Columbus Blue Jackets power plays on Thursday night, but as a group, they remain mired in 30th place in the National Hockey League, killing 71.7% of opponents’ man advantage opportunities. In just five of their initial 13 games have the Leafs skated off the ice at the final buzzer without giving up a power-play goal.
As a group, the Leafs aren’t cohesive when they are down a man and generally there has been disorganization. You can bet that Tim Connolly, who helped the Buffalo Sabres’ penalty kill stay in the top half of the NHL last season, will get an increased role as he continues to work his way into a comfortable role with the Leafs.
The Leafs caught a break in the Blue Jackets’ overall futility and their inability to score when they have one more player on the ice than the other team.
Neither of the Leafs’ victories in back-to-back road games were top-to-bottom success stories. After the win against the Jackets, Clarke MacArthur noted that “we don’t want to get negative, but at the same time keep in the back of our minds that we had some sloppy plays.”
The recognition in the dressing room that not everything was perfect is paramount going forward. The Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, and the youngest on some nights depending on who is in the lineup, but they’re smart enough to know that compiling nine wins in 13 games doesn’t equal long-term success. In other words, taking anything for granted now could lead to problems down the road.
Though the Leafs won’t be holding any defensive clinics based on their wins on Wednesday and Thursday, they continued to get goals from people who need to supply secondary scoring after Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
MacArthur kept a hot streak going with three goals in the two games. Joey Crabb won’t keep up his goal-a-game clip, but he’s much more confident around the opposition’s net than he was in 48 games with the Leafs last season when he had three goals.
Kessel’s excellent start was predicted by absolutely nobody, and neither was that of Lupul.
But more was expected from Nikolai Kulemin (two goals), Tyler Bozak (no goals), and even Matthew Lombardi, who has two goals in 13 games.
The Leafs, though, have been getting it done in the big picture. What’s more, there remains plenty of time to get everything in order before concrete talk of the playoffs can really start.