The old saying goes, “There’s no cheering in the press box.” As an analyst, I have already long ago shucked off the feelings that used to accompany the watching of hockey games. With greater understanding, has come more appreciation of the game from the head than from the heart. That is not to say that the heart no longer becomes involved, but it does mean that the jersey worn by the player has far less impact than the way the team goes about its business. For me, that concept comes to the fore mostly when watching my childhood team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. I am sure that at least some of the emotional remove is related to the team’s poor fortunes over the last decade, but that didn’t stop me from jumping up and down over random February victories in other lost seasons over the past 30 odd years. And there have been plenty of lost seasons.
These days, the love for great hockey is stronger than ever, which, in my role as director of Hockey Prospectus Prospect Coverage, I usually get from watching young, untamed talent discovering their gifts against other aspiring pros. The thrill in “discovering” the next wave of NHL talent is as big for me as it is for the small town hometown (Bringdown) fans in watching these tyros learn and sometimes succeed.
That all said, it is instructive to occasionally step away from the smaller arenas of Ontario on occasion and set foot in the Foster Hewitt Press Box atop the Air Canada Centre to take in an NHL game. On this occasion (Saturday, February 21, 2015), the Leafs were hosting the playoff hopeful Winnipeg Jets. As I had arrived at the arena fresh from taking in the Baby Leafs (a.k.a. The Toronto Marlies) playing the Texas Stars, my first goal was to compare the style of game differences between the AHL and NHL. While every game, like a snowflake, is different, the overriding sense I get from flitting between different levels is that the higher the level, the greater control the players exhibit on the ice.
This is not to say that NHL players are less likely to lose their tempers, but that they play in more regimented structures – for the most part. While the teenagers of the OHL will experiment with regularity on the ice, testing the limits of their own precocious talents, NHLers are more likely to know what they can do and to play within themselves.
But enough digressing, let’s watch some hockey.
Both teams had recently performed major roster renovations, in the form of multi-player trades. The Jets were ten days removed from a blockbuster with the Buffalo Sabres in which the injured and seemingly unwelcome Evander Kane was sent south of the border along with former third overall pick Zach Bogosian in exchange for former Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers, one-time 30 goal man Drew Stafford, prospects and a pick. The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, were six days past dealing two highly sought after pending UFAs in Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville with veteran bottom six center Olli Jokinen the only current NHL return. The Jets are trying to reach the postseason for the first time since the franchise relocated to Manitoba while the Maple Leafs are taking their first planned steps into a major rebuild, amid rumors that team ownership had given the hockey operations department the green light to trade anyone, including All Star sniper Phil Kessel and injured team captain Dion Phaneuf.
The tone for the game was set rapidly, with both sides coming out playing a physical brand of hockey. Not much of a surprise with both clubs ranked in the top five in hits, a dubious statistic when it comes to winning, but one indicative of their styles of play. Aside from the recorded hits, we had players like Toronto’s David Clarkson trying to impose himself physically in situations that may have seen other players try skill plays to make an impact, while Jets like Jim Slater bulldozed into players when carrying the puck, instead of trying to go around them. In the early goings, the most impressive players on both teams were young defenders, Morgan Rielly for the home team and Jacob Trouba for the visitors. Rielly was seemingly always poised to leap forward into an attack, even when in full retreat on a backcheck. Trouba showcased excellent anticipation of the play, while fitting in with the night’s theme, showing strength and a fervor for filling in his man whenever possible. It did not take long to see that both neophytes are at the beginning of what promise to be long and successful careers in the league.
The first turning point in the match came just before the 12 minute mark of the first, when Leafs defender Korbinian Holzer took a goaltender interference penalty. Which begs the question – how often does a defenceman get called for goaltender interference? Holzer is not one of the six best blueliners in the Maple Leaf organization – not even with Phaneuf sidelined – but this is his fifth season in the system and he will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer. It makes some sense that, in a lost season, the team give him a prolonged look before deciding whether or not to bring him back. The penalty was halfway through when Toronto penalty killer David Booth sprang Leo Komarov on a break down the left wing. After outrunning Dustin (Big Buff) Byfuglien to get into shooting position, Komarov unleashed a bullet from past the faceoff circle. The puck went into the far top corner of the net, above Michael Hutchinson’s stick hand.
Winnipeg were quick to respond. Holzer was still seated in the sin bin when the Jets set up in the offensive zone. Trouba came in deep and took possession of the puck from behind the icing line. He flung the disc towards the crease where it bounced off of Rielly’s stick and into the net to equalize.
The first period was playing along quietly until Tyler Bozak was called for tripping with just over two minutes remaining. During the ensuing power play, the Jets had trouble establishing possession in the Toronto end until rookie defenseman Petter Granberg, in the seventh game of his NHL career blindly flipped a puck out from behind his own zone in the general direction of his unsuspecting partner, Rielly. The puck bounced off of Rielly and into the slot where it was collected by Mark Scheifele. The young center took two strides to his right and buried a wrister past Jonathan Bernier, allowing his team to enter the break with a 2-1 lead.
The second period saw the Jets mostly in the ascendancy, although they were unable to capitalize. The line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler was especially impressive, as all three of them are above average at moving the puck around, cycling around the Toronto zone while making medium range passes tape to tape to keep Maple Leaf defenders on their heels. Both netminders seemed to be on top of their games as well, until an innocuous point shot from Holzer around the 15 minute mark was deflected in front of the Winnipeg net by Daniel Winnik, a player who had a full third of the press box occupied by rival scouts looking to poach from the downtrodden Leafs, and into the net to knot the score at two. While Holzer was credited with the primary assist, the more important one for many analysts, the goal would not have happened had Nazem Kadri not won a puck battle in the corner with big Tyler Myers first.
Once again, the Toronto celebrations were short lived, as another poor attempt to exit their own zone in the last minute of play led to another Winnipeg go-ahead goal. This time, with Jake Gardiner skating the puck away from his own crease, Drew Stafford snuck behind him and tapped his stick just as Gardiner was attempting to pass the puck forward. Deprived of steam, his exit pass was picked off by Myers inside the Toronto zone and sent back deep to Stafford. As the Leafs were already in full motion the other way, Stafford had more room to maneuver and was able to find Michael Frolik in the low slot with plenty of space to roam and the Leafs in disarray. Frolik spun in a large circle back out to the high slot and, finding a shooting lane, beat Bernier with a hard wrist shot. As with the end of the first, the Jets returned to the visitor’s locker room after 40 minutes with a one goal lead.
This lead was much shorter lived than their previous ones. In one of Toronto’s first forays into the Winnipeg end in the third period, Nazem Kadri attempted a wrap-around with Joffrey Lupul planted in the Winnipeg crease. While Hutchinson stopped Kadri’s initial stuff attempt, the center picked up his own rebound, and backing away from the crease, fired his second shot from around four feet further away, off the netminder’s skate and into the net.
The remainder of regulation time was extremely chippy, as both clubs continued their game long trend of hitting anything that moved. The two clubs each average between 30-32 hits per game, but in this contest, the home team recorded 39 hits while the visitors tallied 37. The last few minutes were especially aggressive, with the crescendo reached when goal scorer Kadri took a running leap into Blake Wheeler in the Leaf end. Wheeler was bowled right over and Kadri gave him a few shoves while he was down for good measure. Kadri was justifiably booked for charging, but the overaggressive nature of the play coerced Jet defender Mark Stuart to retaliate, obviating any chance of a late power play for his team. As linemate Lupul would say after the game, “Nazem isn’t heavy, but always plays hard.”
Stuart figured prominently into the action as regulation expired, as he was charged for interference in the neutral zone with five seconds remaining, which gave the Leafs a 4-on-3 advantage to start overtime. Toronto did little with the numerical advantage and extra ice space, but that was forgotten moments later as Morgan Rielly (him again) sprang Olli Jokinen on a two on one break with James van Riemsdyk. Jokinen entered the zone and crossed a pass to JvR just past the stick of a poking Trouba. van Riemsdyk one timed a heavy wrist shot into the net to end the game and give the Maple Leafs only their third victory of the 2015 calendar year.
As interim Leafs’ coach Peter Horaceck said in the post-game press conference, in between questions about players on the trade market, “It was good to see a positive response. We’re the ones who played back-to-back… We stayed mentally strong and when we made a mistake, we corrected them quickly…You want to see our team respond. We haven’t had that in a while.”
In many ways, this game was a reminder of the Maple Leafs team that defied the numbers in the first half of the season, due to talented offensive players. For the Jets, this game should serve as a mere bump in the road. The two teams split the possession battle, with the Maple Leafs out Corsi-ing the Jets 61-60. For those of you who have already fully bought into the NHL.com advanced stat package, that means that the Maple Leafs led in SATs by a rather inconsequential solitary shot attempt. The Jets are a slightly above average NHL team. In a league that sees 16 of 30 teams reach the postseason, that puts them safely in the postseason dance.
The game was fun, but I look forward to the getting back to the more unpredictable lower levels.