Another half year over, and what have the Toronto Maple Leafs done?
Some good, very little great, and so much mediocrity and inconsistency that those are the two things that define the first half of their 2013-14 season.
That was all on display on Sunday at the Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs won game No. 41 by a score of 5-2 over the Carolina Hurricanes in a battle between two teams mired in the ugly lower half of what’s become a truly dismal conference this season.
The reasons Toronto pulled the victory out were familiar: Phil Kessel scored twice (and is now on a 40-goal pace), Jonathan Bernier was strong in goal, and they had a collective horseshoe up their rear ends given all their good puck luck, despite spending a lot of the game in their own end.
Or “receiving the game,” as their coach often laments in his postgame pressers these days.
With their default No. 1 centre Tyler Bozak back from injury after 12 games away, the Leafs were outshot 43-27, out attempted 75-49 and turned the puck over with aplomb.
But they also made the most of their opportunities, generating a rare burst of four even strength goals after averaging only 1.5 of those a game over the last two months.
No one in the Leafs dressing room was doing backflips over their performance afterwards.
“I thought we were all right,” Bozak said of his line. “We had some lapses in the D-zone. We kind of got some good bounces as well… the puck was kind of following us around tonight. It’s nice obviously whenever that happens.”
“I thought at times we seemed like we were overmatched in a lot of areas,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle added. “We got some timely goals tonight. Our goaltender played solid.”
Bozak picked up a career high three assists on those tallies as part of a surprisingly strong start for him offensively, something that will inevitably lead some to draw the connection between his return and the two points.
The reality is that the Leafs have been quietly crawling out of the abyss of late without Bozak. Despite winning only once in regulation in their previous 19 games, they have mixed in some better efforts against top teams like the Kings and Blackhawks and kept the shot count from getting ridiculously lopsided more often.
And, as mentioned, the East remains as bad as it’s ever been, keeping even a team in turmoil like Carolina – now on pace for an abysmal 78 points after this loss – in contention for the postseason.
“We’re still in a playoff spot and still contending,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said of where the Leafs sit at the halfway point. “I think the best is still ahead of us.”
If that’s true, it’s not hard to see where it will come from.
In Sunday’s game, Toronto’s power play continued to look dangerous, cycling the puck well and creating chances despite not recording a goal. And there was some much needed secondary scoring at even strength to back up Kessel, with two infrequent shooters in Nikolai Kulemin and Paul Ranger finding the back of the net with long bombs.
Bernier has also settled in as at least a .920 save percentage goaltender, which is a rare bird should he be able to do it consistently over his career.
But there are legitimate questions over whether those pluses can consistently be enough to overcome all of the other deficiencies on this roster, which appeared to frustrate Carlyle following the win.
The Hurricanes were simply dumping the puck deep and pinning the Leafs in their zone, he noted, and that’s something more and more visitors have seen fit to do given Toronto’s issues without the puck.
Carlyle sees his team as too easy to play against, and again and again, he isn’t afraid to say it.
“That seems to be the mandate for teams coming in here: Try to force us to play as much defence and in our own zone [as much as possible] and pinch their d-men down the walls,” he said. “It’s no secret. And we haven’t been able to handle that or manage the game properly in that area. We’ve got to get better at it.”
Now, 41 games of hockey often isn’t enough to make many definitive conclusions about any team based on their record, not when 48 weren’t enough last season to get a true read on the Leafs based solely on theirs.
This is not a terrible hockey team. (Few teams with two good goaltenders are.) But it’s also far from a contender, so far that merely locking up key parts like captain Dion Phaneuf on lifetime deals – a $50-million announcement you can expect shortly, by the way – and waiting on the youth won’t be enough to boost them into that group.
While signing everyone resembling a star player long term has been a path to success for the NHL’s powerhouses lately, Leafs GM Dave Nonis needs to guard against simply locking in mediocrity with this team.
Keeping the good while excising the bad won’t be easy, especially when, even in their wins, Toronto manages to show so much of both.
It’s been driving their coach crazy. And it should be.
“It’s been a trying time,” Carlyle admitted, noting all the extra attention his team was under with HBO’s cameras always on them the last few weeks. “We haven’t played as well as we’d like to hang our hat on. Our group we believe has got lots of room to grow. That always puts added pressure on.”
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