Leafs At The Quarter Mark
By Matthew Iaboni
November 21, 2005
(Toronto) -- Nobody knew what the "new" NHL would look like this season and at the quarter mark of the 2005-06 campaign, to say it has been abnormal would be an understatement.
The Toronto Maple Leafs opened 2005-06 with a shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators. Despite the defeat,the most disturbing thing about opening night was the injury to captain Mats Sundin. He was hit by a puck in the left eye and cheek area, leaving the game at the 7:01 mark.
Without their captain in the lineup there were some positives, along with a handful of negatives.
The Maple Leafs struggled to adjust to some of the new rules, like the shootout, but they enjoyed others like the increased power-play opportunities as they surged to become the number one unit in the NHL with the extra attacker.
Early in the season the Leafs were taking far too many penalties and the PK didn't start off well.
They would routinely have to play the majority of the game shorthanded causing Pat Quinn to rely on his penalty killers and most players weren't used to the decrease in ice time.
Ed Belfour struggled with the new goalie rules as he had to get accustomed to not handling the puck as much and having more traffic in front of his net. In the Eagle's first nine games he was 4-3-2 with 33 goals against and a goals-against average of 3.79.
Not having Sundin and with Belfour struggling, not surprisingly the Leafs had five wins, four losses and two shootout losses, with a minus two in goal differential over their first 11 games.
But there has been plenty to like in the first 21 games of the season.
The first big positive has to be the play of Eric Lindros. After a whole career of hoping, number 88 was finally in the Blue and White and he didn't disappoint Leafs Nation out of the gates. He was used a lot by Quinn in Sundin's absence and Lindros responded by scoring eight goals in the month of October and in one stretch he had six goals in five games.
|2005-06 Leafs Over First11 Games and Last 10|
Another positive for the Leafs has been the play of defenceman Bryan McCabe. The blueliner leads the team in scoring with 30 points, and is one of the major reasons the Leafs power play has been so successful. His shot from the point is lethal and good things happen when he lets it go, especially after taking feeds from Tomas Kaberle.
How good a start is McCabe having? He is on pace for 117 points! That would easily shatter the Maple Leafs record for points in a season by a defenceman.
His strong play has garnered early Norris Trophy talk and a spot with Team Canada at the 2006 Olympics could be in the cards for McCabe.
After being out for 12 games, Sundin returned against Tampa Bay and he immediately made a huge difference to the Leafs lineup. He took over the centre spot on the number one line, which allowed Quinn to balance out the ice time for Lindros and Jason Allison.
Sundin played on the power play, killed penalties and took a regular shift. How has the team responded? In the eight games since he has been back the Leafs are 6-2-0. Sundin has nine points in nine games.
During the current four-game winning streak heading into the quarter-season mark, the Maple Leafs have been doing a few things Quinn had been preaching all season long.
No longer are the Leafs taking nine or 10 penalties a game. In the last three games they have taken only four penalties on average. The penalty kill has gotten better and the fewer infractions have allowed for more five-on-five play and more ice time for the even-strength lines.
The Leafs have also cut down on giveaways and made a more conscious effort to take care of their own end first. All this has led to the Leafs allowing only one goal a game over the last three contests.
Team Comparison After 21 Games
As the defence has improved, so has the play of Belfour. In his last eight starts, he is 6-2-0 with a GAA of 2.76. Although his average for the season is at 3.28, he seems to be getting more comfortable with the new rules as each game passes.
Over the last 10 games, the Leafs have compiled seven wins and three loses and are a plus nine in goal differential.
How do the first 21 games of the 2005-06 season compare with the first 21 games of 2003-04? Well, after 21 games in '03-'04 the Leafs had eight wins, eight loses and five ties for 21 points. In '05-'06, the Leafs have 12 wins, seven loses and two shootout losses for 26 points.
With three quarters of the season still to be played, the Leafs have shown signs of playing much better hockey and that bodes well for the team and its fans.