Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes Friday at PNC Arena:
Gaffe-riddled games a thing of the past.
Leafs fans don’t have to think back too far to recall games in which Toronto regularly made errors – some small, and some glaring – en route to losing. But as head coach Mike Babcock settles in, it’s becoming clear his team minimizes its mistakes and plays a patient game in search of goals-for. There’s no run-and-gun, chance-for-chance type of action to be found, and that’s by design. The Buds can stay competitive if they’re intelligent and opportunistic, and that goes whether they’re playing a genuine Stanley Cup contender or a team like the Hurricanes that are far closer to the bottom of the NHL standings. That’s why, although Toronto was out-shot 34-25 by Carolina Friday, they held the Canes off the scoresheet until 7:47 of the third period and didn’t allow another goal after that. They may not be the league’s most talented team, but thanks to Babcock’s system, you have to know the Leafs no longer play high-risk, high-reward hockey no matter how much talent they have.
Nazem Kadri finally breaks through.
After going without a goal in his previous 15 games, the Leafs’ top centre scored at 16:27 of the third to even the score at a goal apiece. Kadri fired 63 shots on various netminders during that scoring drought, but his coaches have faith in him and the feeling is mutual. The 25-year-old’s second marker of the season will temporarily shift the discussion about his lack of offence to other areas, and that may also help him build confidence and not squeeze his stick quite so hard.
Still no quit? Still no quit.
The Leafs’ collective unwillingness to give up is continuing to impress fans and opponents alike, and you could see it again Friday. They came out of the gate somewhat uninspired and Carolina out-shot them 12-8 in the first period, but the Buds settled down as the game went on – and despite a sub-par goal scored on James Reimer that put the home team up 1-0, Toronto’s players didn’t wilt, kept the pressure on the Canes’ less-than-airtight defence, and pushed the game to overtime and a shootout. The Leafs now have at least one point in eight of their past 10 games, and their resilience is a major reason for that success.
Room to improve in the faceoff circle.
The Hurricanes aren’t challenging the Canadiens and Rangers for top spot in the Eastern Conference, but entering Friday’s action, Carolina was leading the NHL in one department: faceoff win percentage, where their 53.6 percent success rating was better than any other franchise. Faceoff success is important to Babcock and his coaching staff, so the Canes represented a solid litmus test in that regard. Unfortunately for the Leafs, they lost 42 of 71 draws Friday. It’s not necessarily about going back to the drawing board, but it is about recognizing an area of concern and addressing it – and clearly, the Leafs have some addressing to do.
Goaltending controversy? What goaltending controversy?
Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s a debate over who should be starting in Toronto’s net when the Leafs take on Boston Saturday in the first game of a home-and-home series. Reimer has made the starting job his own, and Friday’s win – Reimer’s fifth in a row and seventh of the season – was a good example of how he’s earned the starter’s job: sure, he allowed a goal that was hardly unstoppable, but he wasn’t fazed by it, stepped up to give his team a chance to win and was especially strong in the shootout. Safe to say the job is now Reimer’s to lose.