IN IT TO WINNIK (POST GAME AND PRE-GAME OPINIONS)
Once again, I will have to combine tonight's blog and tomorrow's blog into one as I am busy in the morning. Nonetheless, the Leafs played a great game against an injury riddled Blue Jackets team (who put up a heck of a fight, mind you), winning by a score of 4-1. It was the first time since November of 2011 that the Leafs beat Columbus, so it should make the players feel good the next time these two teams meet.
Tomorrow's opponent, on the other hand, will be a huge test for the Buds. The Blackhawks have been in Toronto waiting for the arrival of the Leafs and they are still on top of the hockey world. They just beat Ottawa 5-4, so do not take them lightly.
What happened? What to expect?
The Leafs just played their best defensive game in a long time, by allowing only 10 shots against them in a huge 4-0 win over the Sabres. With the lines remaining intact, things looked to go well for the Leafs, until Lupul got hurt (again). Yesterday, he hurt his right hand in practice and thought that it was not serious. Unfortunately, it swelled up this morning and he was placed indefinitely on injury reserve. The lines were scrambled and the game was underway.
Columbus was in a rough patch prior to this game, losing 3 in a row and without 8 key members of their lineup. It did not start well for them, as Kessel scored a nice goal that was tipped out quickly by Tyutin (which Kessel quickly identified as a goal). It was under review for several minutes, but eventually it was called a good goal. The two teams battled hard for the rest of the first period and into the second.
It looked as though both teams may decide the game on one shot, and Clarkson did just that midway through the second. On a power-play that was the result of a Johnson interference call, Clarkson tipped in a Phaneuf blast from the point that beat McElhinny to his left. That gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead. The rest of the period remained strong for the Leafs, with the Jackets getting some chances throughout, but one scary moment was JVR's "injury." He was slow to get up, but he later returned.
Into the third, where the Leafs blow the game wide open when Kessel went flying into the offensive end with Kadri. Similar to the type of goals JVR and Kessel usually score, he made a nice pass over to Kadri who made no mistake in slapping in the rebound to give the Leafs a comfortable 3-0 lead. Bernier, who played the easiest game of his career on Tuesday, was tested often and came prepared. Unfortunately, his shutout bid was not to be as a miscue on a shot he thought was in slipped past him and allowed Atkinson to score. Ryan Johansen, who is on a 10 game point streak, following tonight's game, kept his streak alive because of it.
The focus of the evening was Winnik, who was playing in his 500th career game. And he made sure it was a game to remember by scoring his first as a Leaf after Kessel stole the puck and made a quick backhand pass. Winnik carried the puck into the zone and quickly fired it on net to the top corner to give the Buds a commanding 4-1 lead. That is how the scored remained, and the Leafs finally beat Columbus.
Tomorrow's opponent, the Blackhawks, will be a test for the Leafs to see how improved they are. The last time Chicago was in town, the Leafs cruised to a 7-3 win. I don't expect that to happen again, but the game should be fun to watch. Also, keep an eye on Hossa, who just scored his 1000th career point on Thursday. I expect his confidence will grow, as may be the case with whomever is in net for the Hawks. Considering they are without Crawford, the two young netminders (Raata and Darling) have helped the cause. Don't take them lightly.
Percy, Kozun (injured), Booth (injured), Lupul (injured)
Why win and 3 keys to another one
1) Kessel and Winnik. Man those two played great for the Leafs tonight. Both players combined for 6 points, one being Winnik's first of the season. They controlled the play, made smart passes, and were noticeable all night long. Now, having secondary scoring is always important as it gives your team a better chance to win, so the bottom six lines need to step up as the top two lines may be low on energy at the start. As long as the depth provides chances, the Leafs should be ok against a strong Chicago team that are considered the most balanced team in the league.
2) Played hard while conserving some energy. Yes, the score sheet says that the Buds were outshot 29-27. But take into consideration that the Blue Jackets had an aggressive power play in the third where they fired from all cylinders (which lead to their lone goal), and the Leafs were the better team. On that note, good job on the Leafs part by playing some defensive and conservative hockey that allowed them to get a win (which is always good to have). However, if the Leafs want to have two more points, they need to use some of that left over energy and play hard (again). Chicago will have an edge in terms of energy (as they did not play tonight), but the Leafs need to match that energy with some of their own.
3) Took advantage of an injury riddled team. If you took on look at the Jackets roster, you think to yourself "That is one weak team. I hope the Leafs don't screw up!" Thankfully they did not, and took advantage of the fact that Columbus was missing 8 regulars due to injury. By outmuscling and out working them gave the Leafs an edge the moment the puck dropped (and I was glad that they did). The Blackhawks are also without some key members of their own, though not as many as Columbus. Nonetheless, the Leafs need to take advantage of young, inexperienced goalies if they want any shot and scoring goals. Lupul's presence will be missed, but its up to the rest of the offense to work harder.
Predictions and results
From this morning:
"I sense that a rough and tumble game will commence between these two teams (A line brawl will occur at some point). The score will be relatively low, with one goal being a crazy bounce, including a power-play goal by the Leafs. It may even end up in a shootout."No fights, no shootout, no rough and tumble hockey. On the positive note, the Leafs did have a better game on the power play, but my prediction was not right this time around.
As for tomorrow's game, I think the two teams will be playing some tight hockey throughout. There will be some goals scored in this one, but one of them will be on a penalty shot. Also, expect a young gun to score a goal.
Following the meeting with Chicago, the Leafs begin a two game road trip. The two stops will be Arizona and Denver, where they will meet the Coyotes and the Avalanche. These Western Conference games will also be a test for the Leafs.