If Lou Reed can sing at liberty about the perfect day, then surely fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs can gloat about the perfect week.*
Toronto rushed out of the gate to start the 2013-2014 season, winning its first three contests in dramatic fashion. The wins weren’t pretty, but the Leafs were able to rely on their offensive depth and physical prowess in dispatching the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators – all key conference foes who’ll likely be snipping at the team’s heels all season.
I say the wins weren’t pretty because Toronto could have easily lost every one of them. Fortunately, newcomers Mason Raymond, Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier gave their new club just enough of a push to defy the odds.
We’re only three games into the season but Raymond has already emerged as a top forward on the team. I don’t follow the Vancouver Canucks enough to say why they gave up on him, but I’m sure there’s a reason. In any event, if Raymond keeps playing at his current pace, I’ll gladly accept whatever baggage he carries.
Through the first three games of the season, Raymond already has four points (2 goals, 2 goals), but it’s his sheer speed and out-of-the-box creativity that truly impresses. Raymond and Bolland have enjoyed instant chemistry and Joffrey Lupul looked at ease playing alongside them last night. The Leafs may finally have a bona fide second line.
Turning to the man in net, starter James Reimer cannot be blamed entirely for the four goals he allowed last night. The team in front of him didn’t exactly put forth its best effort, but Bernier quickly settled things down after entering the game around the halfway mark. He earned the game’s first star by blanking the Senators in regulation, overtime and the shootout. I expect him to get the next start for the Leafs.
There’s no question that Reimer remains the sentimental favourite in Toronto – his personal story and the way he unexpectedly stumbled into our lives will always endear him to fans – but his faults are common knowledge by now: he doesn’t move the puck particularly well and he gives up far too many rebounds.
Bernier, in contrast, excels in both of these areas of the game and his overall “economy” in movement speaks of a true #1 goaltender. Once again, it’s too early in the season to draw final conclusions, but Bernier looks more like a surefire improvement over last season’s goaltending options than a marginal boost right now. If he continues playing at his current level, there’ll be little “goaltending controversy” to discuss by the end of next week.
Before we get completely lost in the success of this past week, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
First, Paul Ranger’s play has been suspicious to date. He looks out of place at times and unsure of himself. There’s still plenty of time to rectify the situation, but if the Leafs plan to use him as a legitimate top defencemen, they might come to regret it.
Second, after missing the majority of training camp, Cody Franson is beginning to show signs of rust. Last night was undeniably his worst game in a Leafs uniform since joining the team (he played most of the night as a sixth skater for the Senators). He’ll certainly come into form at some point, but the Leafs will likely be vulnerable in the meantime.
This brings me to my wider point: aside from Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson, Toronto’s blueline has been absolutely lousy. They can get away with such mediocre play at the start of the season, but as other teams slowly come into form, the mistakes will become ever more obvious and problematic. Here the temporary loss of Mark Fraser doesn’t help. It forced the team to prematurely insert the untested and inexperienced Morgan Rielly into the lineup last night – a night where Rielly (and his defensive partner Franson) finished -3.
As the Leafs head into the second week of the season, these are some of the things they’ll want to keep in mind. Their first shot at continued perfection comes Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. (If Patrick Roy found the Anaheim Ducks too physical, I can only imagine how he’ll see the Leafs. Expect broken glass.)
*I wonder how many times Lou Reed has been referenced in a hockey story?
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