What a Difference a Week Makes
What a difference a week makes for the Leafs (3-1-2), who have rediscovered their swagger following three straight wins, a resounding turnaround after opening the season with three losses.
The key to the resurgence has been their power play, which remarkably hit for nine of 20 chances in weekend wins at Atlanta and Montreal.
"We've moved the puck really well on our power play the last couple of games,'' said Leafs winger Darcy Tucker. "Hopefully we can continue to do that, that's where we do most of our damage.''
D. Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI
The Toronto scoring machine hasn't missed a beat after losing star captain Mats Sundin, filling the back of the net, win or lose, since the start of the season _ highlighted by Friday's 9-1 rout over the Thrashers.
"I think we're going to score goals, and if we can shore up (defensively) and be better, we'll get some good results,'' said Leafs head coach Pat Quinn, who mercifully didn't add any fresh wounds to his puck-marked face.
Quinn, who has been hit by two pucks in recent weeks, remains concerned, however, by his team's defensive play.
The Leafs may have been a little lucky to snatch a 3-2 win over the Canadiens on Saturday. They were outshot 31-21, including 14-5 in the final period, and easily outchanced. But veteran goalie Ed Belfour bailed them out with a majestic performance.
At issue once again was defensive zone coverage, as the skilled Montreal forwards skated circles around the Leafs and enjoyed puck possession for much of the game. It's area that also hurt Toronto in last Saturday's 5-4 loss to Montreal as well as a pair of losses to the talented Ottawa Senators.
"That's an area we're still going to have to work on,'' admitted Quinn. "We were not as good at keeping those chances down (Saturday) as I would like. We better get better because we can't play that way and expect our goaltender to do that kind of job for us every night.''
The Canadiens, meanwhile, are off to a solid 4-2-0 start but have concerns with their second scoring line. Pierre Dagenais was benched for most of the third period Saturday while rookie Tomas Plekanec was inserted alongside Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. The move by Claude Julien sparked the slumbering line as Ribeiro set up Plekanec for his first career NHL goal.
"That trio hasn't been producing or being efficient, and it's my job to make those kinds of changes,'' said Julien. "Plekanec has a lot of energy, a lot of speed and the skill is there, so I think he gave that line a spark.''
Plekanec could find himself on that line when Montreal hosts Boston on Tuesday.
"Possibly. It worked,'' said Julien.
The Habs coach was unusually blunt in expressing his disappointment with Ribeiro's line, probably because he knows the success of his team relies greatly on having somebody else provide some offence other than the top line of Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alexander Perezhogin.
"It's pretty obvious, there was nothing happening when they were on the ice,'' Julien said of Ribeiro's line. "That line has to score goals for us, Ribeiro and Ryder were our two leading scorers last year, and they're not doing that.''
Montreal will look for their first win at home when the Bruins visits after going 4-0 on the road and 0-2 at the Bell Centre.
"We just can't put 60 minutes together at home right now, there's always a 10-minute break or five-minute break where we lose focus,'' said Koivu.
While the Habs get back at it, the Leafs don't play again until Thursday at home against Carolina, and Tucker in particular can use the time off. Stitches above his left eye are fresh from Friday's game thanks to Andy Sutton's dirty hit, ramming Tucker face first into the glass. That cost Sutton four games. But Tucker was in for more punishment Saturday, hitting the deck three times after some bone-crunching hits from Canadiens defenceman Mike Komisarek.
Through it all, Tucker got up and looked for more. He's become one of the team's true leaders.
"He wears his heart on his sleeve,'' said linemate Jason Allison. "He shows up every night, he's a firecracker out there, he has a lot of passion. He gets knocked around. He's a great guy to have on your team.''
Allison and Tucker have found some chemistry with Jeff O'Neill, the trio combining for 12 points on Friday and scoring Toronto's first goal thanks to Allison on Saturday.
Allison, in particular, has been impressive so far this season, tallying two goals and six assists in six games. His playmaking skills and vision on the ice separates him from others.
"He's been very involved from Day 1,'' Quinn said. "And he was frustrated early because he wasn't where he wanted to be and he's probably still not, but he's getting some results, particularly on the power play. Jason has also shown a responsibility away from the puck that you sometimes take for granted. As a coach you appreciate that part of the game and he's been very good. You know what, I feel real good about him continuing to get to be a better and more important player for us.''
Eric Lindros scored twice Saturday as he also continues to have a strong start to the season _ showing five goals and two assists. The play of Lindros and Allison has reduced the impact of losing Sundin.
"We've been really good down the middle,'' said Tucker. "When we get Mats back, we're pretty excited about our prospects for this hockey club.''
And Belfour wonders why everyone worried so much when the Leafs opened with three losses.
"Anything can happen when you start of against the kind of good teams we started off against,'' said Belfour. "We were right in those games right down to the end, those games could have went either way. Sometimes the media tries to make a little bit more out of it than what it seems to be. But we have a lot of character in this room, guys really stick together and they work hard for each other and that's key.''