November 30, 2011
It felt like a win for Leafs
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
TORONTO - It has been a long time coming. Too long, really. A Wednesday night hockey game in Toronto with this kind of buzz and texture, with meaning and significance and more than that, life.
When was the last time mid-week at the Air Canada Centre felt like this? This loud. This dramatic. This much like hockey that matters. For three years, Ron Wilson has complained about mid-week games at the ACC, about the dismal atmosphere, about the play that reflected that very atmosphere. And in turn, we complained along with him.
But Wednesday night, it wasn’t just the presence of the Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins, that brought the excitement. It wasn’t just a national television audience. Heck, it was the Maple Leafs, too. That fast skating, wide-open, to hell-with-defence Maple Leaf team that has stunned and charmed and shocked the hockey world through the first third of the National Hockey League season.
“They’re legit,” said Claude Julien, coach of the Bruins. He wasn’t saying that to be nice. He wasn’t saying that because he has another team to deal with in the Eastern Conference and he’s not necessarily happy about it.
A Leaf team that lost a game Wednesday night that could have gone either way. The shots 40-37. The scoring chances relatively even. If Tim Thomas had been in goal for the Leafs; Jonas Gustavsson in goal in goal for Boston, who knows if the result would be the same.
What was impressive about the Leafs, and Wilson was impressed, was how they played. This was their game, their style, their speed. This wasn’t Boston crash and bang and win the boards hockey. This was wide-open. This was flrewagon. Style points may not count for anything in the standings, but they meant something late Wednesday to the Maple Leafs team psyche.
"I was pleased with the way we played,” said Wilson, pleased with everything but the six goals given up, one of them into an empty net. The didn’t feel like 6-3. The score was one-sided, the play wasn’t. The Leafs had enough scoring chances to match the Bruins, but missed or fumbled, or had the ice belie them: WIth the puck this is becoming an impressive hockey team.
WIthout the puck in their own zone: See trouble. And yet, this was a loss that felt a little more like a win for the Leafs, because they weren’t mauled, because they weren’t overwhelmed, because the best team in hockey didn’t play that men versus boys kind of game. This was road hockey on a Saturday morning. Last shot wins.
Terrific entertainment. An ACC with noise and excitement where not so long ago it seemed morgue like on most nights ending in Y.
That the Leafs could dictate pace and style of game is a victory of some kind. Whether they can manage that Saturday night in Boston, in the second game of the back to back, will be determined on the weekend.
What was so much fun about Wednesday night was the stars and the kids and playmakers made a difference. Zdeno Chara scored and Dion Phaneuf hit the post. Tyler Seguin scored and Phil Kessel set up a goal and could have had a couple himself had the puck not played tricks on him,
Milan Lucic was immovable for the Bruins and the kids, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner, made all kinds of offensive plays for the Leafs, Gardiner making a marvelous pass that so stunned Tyler Bozak he was unable to react in time to convert what should have been easy into a goal.
But damn, this was entertaining and enjoyable. At one point, Phaneuf was found wide-open in the slot while his defence partner, Keith Aulie crashed into Thomas and got called for goaltender interference. Two defenceman on the rush, inside the hash marks: That’s worth even the high price of admission the Maple Leafs charge.
This was a loss disguised as a confidence boost. A little recognition that the Leafs can give the Bruins all kind of trouble under the best of circumstances. The Leafs offering up a handful for the best in hockey.
Over these last awful seasons, there have been few memorable defeats for the Leafs, few reasons to care or believe. This 6-3 loss was a defeat of promise. A night of atmosphere, a night of hope. Legit is what Claude Julien called the Leafs. He wasn’t smiling when he said so.