Leafs center Nazem Kadri does his best to create offence for the blue and white, however the Penguins defence shut down the Leafs star players at every turn.
Toronto - November 15, 2014 - Welcome back to reality Leaf fans. Coming off their biggest win of the season against the Bruins on Wednesday, Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins became a true test of the Leafs’ ability. It was time to see if the Leafs could consistently play against the best teams in the NHL. On this occasion the Leafs fell short, losing 2-1. The score board may suggest that this was a close game, however it was not. The Leafs allowed 40 shots against while the Penguins first line centered by Sidney Crosby sported a possession percentage of 73%. The Leafs were out skated, out possessed and simply out played.
It appears that the key for the Leafs this year will be how they start games. After only getting 5 shots in the first period and watching the Penguins skate circles around them, one cannot be surprised by the outcome of this game. The one bright spot in this game was Jonathan Bernier. The Leaf netminder was solid all game long, stopping 38 of 40 shots. Whatever rust Bernier showed early in the season appears to have worn off, as he is looking like he is at the top of his game. I would expect the Leafs to continue the trend of splitting the back to back games, and have James Reimer start Saturday night against Buffalo. Despite the Leafs problems in front of their goalie, it would appear that both Bernier and Reimer are playing at the level needed if the Leafs are going to win games.
There were not a whole lot of positives in this game for Leaf fans, and considering how games against the Penguins have gone in the past this was a fairly dull affair. Apart from Bernier’s notable performance in net the Leafs played poorly, however their poor play is correctable.
First off, coach Randy Carlyle needs to split up the first line again. Against the Penguins we saw the return of the Kessel-Bozak-van Riemsdyk line and it’s simply not getting it done. Bozak’s production numbers 5v5 are simply not at the level needed to be playing on the first line. He is a second or third line center who excels on the power play. Five of Bozak’s six goals have come on the man advantage, as well as eight of his 15 total points.
Kessel needs to be playing with current second line center Nazem Kadri. Kadri has better possession numbers, and has looked far better than Bozak at creating offense 5v5. One may point to Kadri’s production at this point in the season and scoff, but remember that he has been playing at times with Daniel Winnik and David Clarkson as his wingers. Neither of whom possess elite, or even significant offensive ability. Continue to play Bozak with Kessel on the power play, but to do so 5v5 is simply handicapping your best player with a weak center.
The Leafs presently are an incomplete team. They’re missing a few players to injuries, most notably Joffrey Lupul, David Booth and Brandon Kozun. They lack a true number one center to play alongside Kessel and van Riemsdyk, as well as a true shutdown defenseman. It’s on nights where they play teams like the Penguins where this incompleteness becomes plain to see. This is a young team, prone to mistakes and prone to watching the puck rather than playing it.
When players of Crosby and Malkin get on their game against the Leafs, the Leafs start to fall apart and it speaks to what this team lacks. Key players up the middle, the ability to stop the leagues top talent, and the experience to pull together in the final few minutes and find a goal to tie the game. Jonathan Bernier did more than you can ask a goalie to do against a team like Pittsburgh. He gave the Leafs every opportunity to win and they simply could not do it. The fact this game was only decided by a game does a disservice to the Penguins in representing how well they played.
The Leafs have a great opportunity to hit the reset button after this loss, as they travel to Buffalo on Saturday night to take on the Sabres. Look for James Reimer to get the start in net.