SENATORS (30-28-7) at MAPLE LEAFS (21-32-10)
Tonight marks the first time Dion Phaneuf will play at the ACC donning another team’s jersey in 7 seasons. Last month, the Leafs traded their captain, and a slew of prospects, to their provincial rival for a top prospect, two forwards and a defenseman. Since then, tonight has been circled on many calendars. For some, to see if Phaneuf is still playing the same, a not very good style of defense, for others because they want to see how he plays on team that hasn’t struggled quite as much this season. One of the more interesting parts of a former Leafs player returning to play their first game back at the Air Canada Centre is to see how the fans react, whether they boo or cheer. I’d like to think he’d receive a warm reception but it may be lukewarm, bordering cold.
Despite the Phaneuf storyline dominating this game, it features teams who have both lost their last few games. But they’ve lost in completely different fashions; the Sens have lost due to a lack of consistent effort while the Leafs lost close games they probably didn’t have any business competing in.
The Sens tried to pull off another miracle to make the playoffs in the last month of the season but, the team simply hasn’t been able to come together and rally the way they did just a year ago. There have been questionable coaching decisions made, a lack of contribution, and goaltending has been an exploitable weakness that the recent Craig Anderson injury is only going to worsen. One of the few bright sides for the Senators, however, has been the play of Phaneuf since he was traded last month. With the lessened amount of pressure resting on his shoulders, and a decreased role than that he had in Toronto, he’s been able to flourish and play a reliable game. Playing on the left side has also begun a mentorship process with Cody Ceci, a promising young defenseman that was missing a veteran player than can help him develop into the strong two way defenseman a lot hope he will become as his career continues. However, Phaneuf’s presence in Ottawa simply hasn’t been enough to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive. They struggled to keep up with the Blues on Tuesday, despite taking advantage of 2 minutes of bad hockey by St Louis, and looked completely lost against Tampa Bay, the best team in the Atlantic Division.
Tonight’s game is a great opportunity for the younger, less experienced, new look Leafs. Tonight marks the first game in which the half AHL team isn’t playing a team that, on paper, should be blowing them out of the water. William Nylander admitted Thursday that he was star struck while on the ice against Ovechkin and Stamkos. The Wild, who haven’t been performing to their potential this season, had the potential, based strictly on the calibre of players on their roster, to make the Leafs look silly Thursday night but the kids fought hard. So long as they put forth the same effort against Ottawa tonight, they should be fine.
Their defense will need to play a bit tighter as a whole but, I haven’t completely hated what I’ve seen out of the guys on the blueline. Thursday night, Jake Gardiner made a great play in the 3rd period to keep the puck from going into the empty net when Sparks took a little too long to get over to the other side. It was a simple body sacrificing play but, that’s the kind of commitment that Mike Babcock has been preaching all season, the types of plays that help to win games. I’ve really liked Morgan Rielly’s play recently as well, although, I’d like to see him make much sharper passes to his intended target. There’s a strong chance the Leafs could have come close to, or actually tied up the game late Thursday had he made a stronger pass to Gardiner in the offensive zone. It’s the smaller things that need to be taken care of to produce more wins. That being said, I have seen the team become a much more reliable defensively, not quite so reckless in their own zone, as of late, despite their injury/call up situation.
To be successful against Ottawa, I think that their defense will need to be tighter and crisper, as mentioned above, as the Sens have a few fast, talented forwards that can exploit that weakness easily with Pageau, Stone and Dzingel (and especially if they choose to play Matt Puempel). Offensively, I think that William Nylander needs to simplify his game, he looks like he’s trying too hard for that first goal. If he can stop trying to make the perfect play, and just do what’s been making him so successful with the Marlies, he’s golden. One thing I’ve noticed from watching Kapanen so much in the past few months is that, the more familiar he is with his surroundings, or the level of play – so to speak, the better he gets. I can see both Kasperi and Nylander finding their stride against Ottawa, especially if they’re matched up against Zach Smith and Chris Neil’s line. They could outskate those guys all day. I’ve really like Soshnikov (who hasn’t like Sosh?), Hyman and Carrick so far, especially their level of compete. I can see special teams playing a factor in this game but mainly because of the typical amount of penalties a Battle of Ontario game normally features. Ottawa has one of the worst penalty kills in the league this season, and their powerplay isn’t much better. While the Leafs’ special teams haven’t been something to write home to mom about, they’ve been less atrocious than the Sens. If the Leafs can capitalize on those types of opportunities, they have a real chance of adding another 2 points to their season total.
This game probably won’t be the best in the Battle of Ontario record books but, it’s probably going to be an exciting one, from the perspective of a Leaf fan. And it’ll give Sens fans a taste of a few players they can start to dread seeing 6 times a season.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – Nikita Soshnikov
Michael Grabner – William Nylander – Zach Hyman
Colin Greening – Ben Smith – Brooks Laich
Kasperi Kapanen – Peter Holland – Brendan Leipsic
Matt Hunwick – Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner – Frank Corrado
Martin Marincin – Connor Carrick
Mike Hoffman – Mika Zibanejad – Bobby Ryan
Zack Smith – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Mark Stone
Ryan Dzingel – Scott Gomez – Alex Chiasson
Nick Paul – Curtis Lazar – Chris Neil
Marc Methot – Erik Karlsson
Dion Phaneuf – Cody Ceci
Mark Borowiecki – Chris Wideman
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Gdiff (5v5) — -22
Gdiff (All) — -37
CF% (5v5) – 51.5
PP% – 14.1
PK% – 79.6
Gdiff (5v5) — -6
Gdiff (All) — -16
CF% (5v5) – 47.5
PP% – 17.8
PK% – 74.1