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The Leafs and Pens face off for the third time this year tonight in Pittsburgh at 7:30pm. If you chose to spare yourself from the last time these two met, then the following may bring back some repressed memories.
On October 25 the Pens and Leafs were heading into the third period tied at one. All throughout it was a very solid game for both teams. However, as the third period kicked off, the Leafs went on a roll and didn't stop until the score was 5-1. Gonchar would later add a goal just to pad his stats, but the win was solely that of the Leafs. With all of the goaltending shifts of the season, let me remind you that Fleury was in net.
In the first meeting of the season prior to that game the Pens won by the uncommonly high score of 6-4. Sabourin started the game and gave up two goals in the first but was later relieved by Fleury after Darcy Tucker gave Sabu a love tap to the dome. The collision gave him a concussion for the remainder of the game but allowed him to still possess more brain matter than Eric Lindros.
Heading into this game, the Pens are hoping to extend their win-streak to five in a row. Doing so would give them their longest streak of the season, with the previous high being four in a row during the Northwest road trip.
Building up to Thursday's game, I asked PPP from http://www.pensionplanpuppets.com a few questions about the Leafs. Here's what he had to say.
1. Raycroft or Toskala? Who would you rather see in net?
Toskala 7 days a week and twice on Sunday. What was dealt for them aside, the one concern that most fans that I know had was whether Vesa could handle the workload. He clearly had the talent to be a # 1 goalie but he had never played more than 38 games in a year and we had already seen how much Maurice loves to ride his starter's (Raycroft and Irbe). So far Toskala seems to have kicked his game into a higher gear with the recent stretch of 12 straight starts. The season will hinge on how grave this groin injury turns out to be and whether he returns to his pre-injury form.
I gave Raycroft a chance but as the Desjardins' stats in my recap of the Rangers' game show Razor has had a light load and failed to carry it. His chance is past and if the Leafs can't get something in return before the end of the season he'll either be waived or bought out by the summer.
2. The Leafs spent a lot of time pumping money into providing a solid defense and goaltending, yet currently rank 26th in the league in goals against and 25th on the penalty kill. Any thoughts?
Well, the Leafs' were 30th in goals against so they have been improving. The money spent on the defence was based on the premise that neither of the other 3 spots would be filled by Andy Make-A-Wish Wozniewski. As a unit (Kaberle, McCabe, Kubina, Carlo, White, and Gill) they can play strong defence as they have shown in stretches even with either Carlo or McCabe missing. Kubina has had a much stronger season than last when a new baby and early injuries derailed any attempt at settling in. Hal Gill has been a monster at eating up PK minutes with Kubina, White, while I don't like him again, has made strides in his development, and the trio of Kaberle, McCabe, and Carlo - when healthy - all provide excellent puck distribution and solid defence. The problem isn't in the personnel but in their execution. It didn't help last year that they were bedding in a bad goalie or that early this year they were once again a. injuries to contend with and b. a new goalie. However, that stretch between the embarrassment in Phoenix and the 7 game road-trip was a show of what this group can perform.
As for the PK, the home form is killing it's overall ranking. They are actually 8th in the league on the road where they kill penalties at an 84.2% efficiency but 28th at home with a 77.6% efficiency. That percentage is killed by the early blowouts that the team suffered at home and games like last Saturday's where the Rangers went 5-10.
3. What impact has the McCabe injury had on the team as a whole and when can they expect him back in the lineup?
Individually, the injury to McCabe doesn't take too much away based on how he was playing. Offensively he was not contributing anything to the level of the season which earned him the massive contract and defensively he was providing what is expected of a second pairing defenceman but nothing to blow you away. The Leafs' record without McCabe makes you think that he is the Leafs' MVP. Right now I think that they are something along the lines of 3-26-2 without him over the past three years. The truth is that much like Colaiacovo's absence the impact of the loss is a showcase for the trickle down effect of injuries. On the powerplay Kubina steps into his slot but he's a right handed shot so the Leafs have two up top (Pavel and Mats) which takes away the one timer from that side. In terms of ice-time it means a heavier load for Kubina and Kaberle 5 on 5 and more 5 on 5 time for Gill which is not where his strength lies. His absence, now that Carlo has returned, means that Andy Wozniewski, inexplicably, not only remains in the lineup but begins to see more/some time on the penalty kill.
4. Will Paul Maurice see the end of the 07/08 season with the Leafs?
Definitely. There is no way that Maurice gets canned before the end of the year. I wouldn't trust any of the assistants to get my kids to school let alone try to get this team into the playoffs. JFJ is no Don Waddell and he can't step behind the bench. Like it or not, their fates are intertwined and likely won't be finalized until after the season.
5. What's it going to take for the Leafs to make a turnaround and compete for a playoff spot? As funny as it sounds, their season depends as much on the health of Carlo and McCabe as it does on Vesa Toskala. The Leafs can basically rotate any forwards in and produce goals but without the two defencemen they can't play anywhere near the level of defence needed to protect a goalie like Raycroft or Clemmensen and it's barely passable with Vesa guarding the net.
However, if those two are healthy and Vesa comes back without a dip in form then the Leafs just need to remember how much back-checking changed the team into a defensive juggernaut before the recent road trip.