Even taking into account it was said for the benefit of the media and had all the sincerity of a corporate Christmas e-mail, Dion Phaneuf's opinion of the Toronto Maple Leafs' last game before the break was unsettling:
"I think we can go into the break feeling good about the way we played."
This has to be most unsettling of all for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, since it came shortly after his team lost 2-1 in a shootout to the New York Rangers, a game that was only that close thanks to Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier. All of the things that undermined the Leafs' NHL season were on display: giving up 43 shots, playing in a continuing fog in their own end, creating no offence and losing way too many battles for the puck.
In other words, all those things you see Carlyle yelling at his players about on 24/7, no matter if the cameras are there or not. It's been a continuing theme since the Leafs cooled off after a good start to the season. Summed up, the Leafs don't compete enough, as the coach likes to say. They don't win enough one-on-one battles for the puck, either in open ice or along the boards or even in faceoffs, giving the analytics people lots of ammunition to state the obvious, that the other boys don't let the Leafs have the puck very often.
So it can't be too encouraging for the coach to hear his captain say the Leafs should feel good about themselves shortly after exhibiting all their faults. Then again, let's stretch a point. It might be a real stretch, but maybe Phaneuf is on to something.
If you look hard enough, there were a couple of signs things could be better after the Christmas break.
The Leafs come back to play the Buffalo Sabres on Friday. One was the play of David Clarkson in the last couple of games. Yes, Clarkson, the fellow who is regularly flogged here and elsewhere for his three goals in 27 games.
However, Clarkson figured in two Leaf goals in their last two games. But more importantly, they were the kind of goals the Leafs need to score more of, the ones that come from winning fights for the puck around the net. Clarkson was signed to a seven-year contract at $5.25-million (U.S.) per year because he was supposed to bring that sort of game.
What Clarkson brought at first was too much faux aggressiveness and a misguided sense of when to use it, hence the 12 games total in suspensions. But more than a third of the way into the season, Clarkson is starting to show the right application of his grit. This is a small sample size to be sure, but it's enough for hope it will rub off on some of his teammates like Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.
Speaking of those two, there is also some hope on the horizon for them. Centre Tyler Bozak is scheduled to come off the injured-reserve list on Dec. 29, which means Kessel and van Riemsdyk could break out of their extended scoring funks.
Bozak may not be the ideal No. 1 centre, but he is the one on the roster who can get the most out of his buddy Kessel and van Riemsdyk. Nazem Kadri certainly isn't the answer.
Aside from Kadri, the rest of the centres showed they might be ready to fix another sore spot, the one in the faceoff circle. While Kadri was still bad, losing 12 of 17 faceoffs against the Rangers, his fellow centres were much better. Jay McClement won 21 out of 30 and Peter Holland took seven of 10.
So maybe, and it's a big maybe, the new year might be better for the Leafs. They will get the much-hyped Winter Classic off their backs on Jan. 1, not to mention the cameras from 24/7, and then sticking to business could be a little easier.
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