TORONTO – At this stage of the Maple Leafs’ season, few should be shocked that they would follow up a win over a Stanley Cup frontrunner like the Boston Bruins with a sloppy, 4-3 shootout win to a Stanley Cup backwalker like the Buffalo Sabres. Inconsistency is the hallmark of this work-in-progress team – and although it might be difficult for Toronto’s long-suffering fan base to come to grips with, this type of one-step forward, three-rolling-cartwheels-back routine is likely to continue for the time being.
Neither the Sabres nor the Buds looked especially interested to start the game at Air Canada Centre and for every positive – say, rookie defenseman Morgan Rielly’s second career NHL goal, or Nik Kulemin’s sixth of the season on a wicked wrist shot – there were some gawd-awful moments: blueliner Cody Franson’s abominable turnover led to the Sabres’ second goal of the evening; and a terribly soft goal allowed by James Reimer let the visitors pull even at three goals apiece just 43 seconds into the third period. However, the Leafs pulled out another shootout win (their league-leading ninth of the season) to send the fans home happy and register their third straight win.
But let’s face it, the timeline for this Leafs team to be a true Cup contender – an all-business, consistently focused squad along the lines of a St. Louis Blues, L.A. Kings or San Jose Sharks – is a long one. All three of those aforementioned teams went through intense, often-agonizing growing pains with even more depth and top-end talent in their lineup than Toronto has at present. Nazem Kadri (who set up Rielly’s goal) is still finding his way, disappearing for long stretches before making a play that reminds you how gifted he is. Captain Dion Phaneuf gave them a team-best 25:37 against the Sabres, but took two penalties and had a pair of giveaways; Phil Kessel opened the scoring with his 22nd of the year, but turned the puck over a team-worst four times on the night.
The advanced hockey stats community makes some valid arguments about the faults of this Toronto team – their horrendous puck possession numbers chief among them – but here’s what I believe most about the Leafs: I believe they’re entirely unpredictable. I’ve seen them hold their own against some top teams and I’ve seen them turn in abysmal efforts against other top teams with an end result as grisly and predictable as any Katherine Heigl romantic comedy film. I’ve seen them steamroll some bad teams and I’ve seen them roll over for other bad teams. You can’t be sure what they’ll do from period-to-period, let alone week-to-week.
Honestly, if you had to bet on what the Buds will do during any given game, how much money would you really feel comfortable wagering? For me, the limit – for charitable purposes only, of course – would be about $20. Anything more than that, and you may as well throw it to the wind and hope you catch a stream that blows it back to you.
If you need a slogan that best describes this year’s Maple Leafs, I think I’ve got a good one:
Oh god, think what they’re capable of! Oh god, think what they’re capable of.