Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre, as Marcel Goc laid a shorthanded, stick-side deke on J-S Giguère (after a ghastly Brett Lebda) giveaway, to make the score 4-1 in favour of the Nashville Predators, there was absolutely no indication of what was to come.
Without warning, the Predators imploded.
And don’t give me that “The Leafs had four power-play goals!” garbage. The power play had nothing to do with the Leafs’ victory last night, except it deftly provided the catalyst for some things that has been void from the Leafs’ game for about a month – effort, intensity and, most of all, speed.
While it was delicious for Leafs’ fans to watch the referees hand the Predators six second-period penalties (to the Leafs’ none), it was a decision that Toronto made that changed the game entirely. They decided that they would act with desperation – especially after Goc took that first PP and turned it against the home squad.
Normally, the Leafs just throw up their hands at that point and start the old “Hey, boys, let’s coast through the rest of this one, then go out for a nice steak” routine. Didn’t happen.
It was as if someone on the Toronto bench threw a big switch and announced, “We ARE NOT going to blow this opportunity.” That’s exactly the way the Leafs played over the first week-and-a-half of this season and then, as if by magic, that winning hunger just vanished.
The Leafs did to Nashville what teams have been doing to the Leafs most of the season. They found a weakness and exploited it to victory. When the Leafs began their first 5-on-3 (with Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein in the box), they turned everything up a notch – including the pace at which they moved the puck and skated.
Speed is what won the Leafs four games off the top of this season. They didn’t just skate – they outskated their opponent. Big difference. They didn’t just work – they outworked their opponent. As the youngest team in the NHL, the Leafs should be able to outskate most teams in the league. But they have not been doing that.
They have been playing like children sulking in the corner of their room after being spanked by every other team they’ve faced.
Giguère made some key saves to keep Toronto in the game (as he’s done all season) then, after a groin injury forced his departure, Jonas Gustavsson shut the door on a desperate Nashville club. But that was not the difference in the game. The offence was. Kris Versteeg decided this would be the game he’d show the positives everything has been claiming he possesses.
And what I really loved is that the offence picked up the pieces after a few defensive miscues (Lebda’s gaffe, Komisarek and Beauchemin performing like a beautifully choreographed chorus line in front of Jiggy as J.P. Dumont scored the game’s first goal). The Leafs’ defence has been carrying this club for the last month. If the offence had contributed at all, the team would be way over .500 right now.
All those second-period PPs gave the Leafs one more thing – confidence. It’s something they desperately needed to snap their eight-game skid.
Will that carry over into Thursday’s game against the Devils? There is absolutely no reason it shouldn’t. In the second half of the game against Nashville, the Leafs finally played up to their potential. They played exactly the way they can play.
A confident team is a very dangerous team. And, if they come out hard against the Devils, Toronto fans can thank the Preds – and the refs – for providing that confidence.