I hope all of you had a wonderful holiday season and a great New Year.
The only thing I managed to do over the holidays was grow a beard. (Well, it might not constitute a beard - I just haven’t shaved since Christmas Eve). Somewhat shockingly my newly hirsute chin hasn’t brought the Leafs the expected luck. Perhaps this facial hair thing only works in the playoffs…
This Leafs team and organization still leaves me cold; such a culture of losing that seems to be getting more and more ingrained...since this team loves to cough up the last minute goal and throw away points, I thought I’d have a look at who Coach Mo has been tapping for ice time in critical late-game situations – specifically those tied /close games versus Carolina, Tampa, the Islanders and Tampa again.
The Leafs picked up four points from this series of games when they should have easily walked away with at least six if not more. Looking at line combinations, I would suggest in at least two of those games it was the Leafs poor line changes/match-ups that cost them the game and the points. Keep that in mind come March when the Leafs are desperately in need of points and chasing that last playoff spot.
After looking at who's on the ice with the game on the line, the critical question I'd like to ask (or better yet, have answered is): Is the inability to get the right guys on the ice at the right time a failure of the coaching staff or do the Leafs simply not have enough depth to hide certain weak ES guys (Tucker, Wellwood, Blake) in late game situations?
I’ll let you read on and then decide…
December 18 Leafs v. Hurricanes
With just under 2 minutes to go in a 2-0 game, Maurice ices what has arguably been the Leafs best forward line, while Gill has been strong on D this year…
Unfortunately, Caroline cashes one in to make it 2-1.
Maurice comes back with arguably his top 5 man unit:
And the Canes score off the bad turnover/cough-up by Poni who was staring down an open net…if I were behind the bench (and lord help Leaf fans if that were the case) I’d likely roll the lines the exact same way…
December 20 Leafs v. Tampa
Two nights later, the Leafs and Bolts are tied 1-1 on the road late in the game and Maurice rolls out:
You can blame Kubina’s broken stick all you want (and hey, the Leafs and all of their spokespeople sure did) but the fact is Kaberle covered for Kubina and broke up the ensuing rush. It was Blake’s soft turnover at the Leafs’ blue line (remember that) coupled with Tucker’s failure to cover his man that gave Lecavalier the chance to put the puck in the back of the net.
If I were coach, that forward line wouldn’t see the ice at ES or PK when there’s less than five minutes remaining in the game. Tucker is murder at ES, Wellwood is a creative playmaker, but couldn’t go into a corner if he lived in a square and Blake leads the league in turnovers. I really don’t see how this is a winning combination. I would love to know what Maurice was thinking here…
December 26 Leafs v. Islanders
It’s overtime, four on four, tie game. Leafs have just come off a PP that generated lots of chances so Kubina and Kaberle aren’t available to Maurice. The Leafs change on the fly, sending out:
Gill isn’t the fastest skater, but I’m still very surprised Maurice would go with a rookie and little-man White at that point in the game. What makes this line change especially questionable is the forward paring – the Leafs smallest/greenest D with the two softest and smallest forwards in Wellwood and Blake. I don’t understand this pairing at all, especially given the forward's presence on the ice for the winning (losing goal) in the final minute against Tampa in just the previous game.
So what happens? Blake turns the puck over at the Isles’ blue line (quelle surpise!) the Leafs have a soft back-check and Comrie pots the winner off a rebound.
Of note - the Stajan, Steen, Devereaux line doesn’t see a single second of ice during OT…once more, would love to know if any of the media horde questioned the coach on his decision to play small in the extra frame.
The Leafs go on to sleep through a game in Philly and get positively smoked by the Rangers before going up against the cellar-dwelling Lightning on January 1, 2008.
With the Leafs up by one going into the third, Maurice shortens his bench. Belak, Bell, Tlusty get a single shift at the three minute mark and that’s it for them. (Good thing Bell was part of that Toskala trade and is under contract for one more year at $2M+…).
With a minute to go, Maurice reunites the Steen, Stajan, Devereaux line, which had been broken up for this game (Steen played with Blake and Sundin; Stajan played with Tucker and Kilger). Tampa pots an odd one off a deflected long-shot and the game goes to OT and the shoot-out.
I think this was a good call by Maurice, as that line has been very dependable and it was a bit of an odd goal that tied it up…thankfully he kept Wellwood in the press box and Tucker and Blake didn’t see the ice in the final three minutes of the game.
To sum up: by my estimation, that makes Maurice 2 for 4 in terms of managing his bench during critical moments of these four games, which isn’t good enough.
Admittedly, these odd coaching decisions are nothing new. In game one, Maurice sent Tucker out in OT against the Heatley line when the Leafs had the last change at home. But by now, you’d think the coaching staff would have seen enough of Tucker, Blake and Wellwood to know that they shouldn’t be on the ice at ES at critical points in the game. While I’m hopeful the club has learned from those games in Tampa and Carolina (though I really doubt it).
Perhaps we'll get another chance to see the Leafs try to match lines against the Pens tonight...hopefully Tucker and Blake can avoid lining up against Sid and Malkin.