MAPLE LEAFS (10-8-4) at FLAMES (10-13-2)
8:30 pm (SNO)
I woke up this morning and did something I did a lot last year, but for an entirely different reason.
I checked the standings.
Last season was pure torture. Game after game, we watched a subpar product come up short, all in the hopes that the end would justify the means. All for the hope that someday Shanny and co. would ice a competitive roster and bring our team back to respectability. We watched it all so we could watch Auston Matthews don the blue and white. Many were prepared to do it all again this season as well.
Thats right, last year I checked the standings regularly to see how far out of 30th the Leafs were (not cheering for losses, but accepting them as they came). This year I’m watching the standings to see how far out of a playoff spot the Leafs are. How far you ask? One game. As of this morning they are one 60- minute game away from leapfrogging the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers and kicking the New Jersey Devils from their spot to sit, for at least a day, in a playoff spot. Just. One. Game.
Usually I’d sit here and say it’s a long season, they have time to get there. I’d also encourage people to look at the big picture. It’s not about last season alone, or this one, or next years either. Nor is it about any single game in any of those years. Instead, I tell people each game is a collection of shifts, each season is a collection of games, and becoming a legitimate contender is about a collection of seasons. It’s about the collective build, the entire journey, and how this team grows along the way.
However, you can’t win each shift until you learn how to win each board battle or scrum. You can’t win a game until you learn how to win each shift. You can’t put together a successful season until you learn to win each game. You can’t win the big prize, and truly become a champion, until you learn how to win key games under pressure.
You can’t win until you prove your worth while your feet hang above the Flames (sorry, I’ll understand if this is my last GDR).
So this is how I’ll look at this game. I’m going to watch a team that has an opportunity to get there. Not tomorrow, not next year, but tonight. They have an opportunity to jump into a playoff spot and from there, they’ll have every opportunity to not look back. They’ll be given the chance to be the team to beat. Isn’t that what every team wants to be? The guy on top, the ones other teams look forward to playing to measure themselves against? If you’re going to be that team you need to be in a playoff spot at least.
As for the Flames, well, they face an opponent that has every excuse to lose, that I know for sure. Their big trade acquisition has come up short most of the year. Brian Elliott, who consistently put up stellar numbers in St. Louis, has been a dud so far in Cowtown. In fact, Chad Johnson has all but taken over the role of starter. Their go- to offensive threat, Johnny Gaudreau, is on the shelf after sustaining a broken finger via a slash from Eric Staal. Their current leading scorer is….. **checks again**…. Yup, Michael Frolik, with 6 goals and 8 assists. The players that normally lead the offensive charge, such as Giordano, Monahan and Brodie are all struggling so far to produce. The Flames are just three points out of the basement in the West, with only Arizona and Colorado below them in the standings. Both teams have four games in hand.
So, what does it all look like? A young team with a chance to prove they belong with the big boys, set to take on a team that is expected to compete that just hasn’t been able to put it together.
If history has taught us anything it’s that the Leafs will buckle under the pressure. They’ll play the role of slump busters. They’ll fail where they should prevail and prove to be….well, Toronto Maple Leafs. Afterall, it’s what they do, right? Maybe.
Or maybe the team we saw play over the past couple of games will show up again. Maybe the team that took it to Washington before rolling into Edmonton to down McHeaven and his angels will keep rolling on towards a new normal. A normal where the Leafs are expected to rise to the occasion and be the team to beat.
Sounds like a great storyline to watch if you ask me. Better than watching Hamilton and wondering how he would look in a Leafs uniform. Even better again than having to give up William Nylander to make that happen. No worries here though, I know Lou and he’s no dummy. Hamilton is a fine player I’m sure, but you don’t trade Nylander until you know 100% what you have and he’s too early in his career to call it anything but a guessing game. So sit back and focus on the real issue. What do we have this year? A playoff team that can recognize opportunity and rise to the occasion? Or a rebuilding team that could use another key draftee to further their core?
So there it is, the game is on, the table is set, time for a feast of Flames!! (truly truly sorry!! I’ll just show myself out)
Projected Line Combinations
Toronto Maple Leafs
Komorov — Kadri — Soshnikov
Hyman — Matthews — Brown
van Riemsdyk– Bozak — Marner
Martin — Nylander — Smith
Reilly — Zaitsev
Gardiner — Carrick
Hunwick — Polak
Tkachuk — Backlund — Frolik
Versteeg — Jankowski — Brouwer
Shinkaruk — Monahan — Ferland
Bennett — Stajan — Chiasson
Giordano — Hamilton
Brodie — Engelland
Jokipakka — Wideman
Mike Babcock — Post Game — 11/29/2016