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Second Half Answered Some Questions

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: Ulmer: Things Looking Up For Leafs | Leafs Headed To Worlds
VIDEO: Wilson | Phaneuf Talks Aulie | MacArthur On His Season | Kulemin & Grabovski
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Dion Phaneuf got his mojo back.

The Three Amigos broke out.

The two most fitting words to describe the Leafs' 2010-11 season are as follows: Who knew?

If you want to start looking for when things began taking an interesting twist, consider December 9th.

That was the day Phaneuf was paired with rangy call-up, Keith Aulie.

The six-foot-five Aulie and Phaneuf speak to the classic defensive pairing. Aulie has the wing span of a subdivision and relishes stapling opponents to the boards behind the Leafs net. He is surprisingly agile for a big man and he is what he seems to be, a very tall western kid just happy to pass by without notice.

Phaneuf, on the other hand, is all clenched teeth and pumped fist. From the beginning, they have worked.

“The chemistry we had started from day one,” Phaneuf said. “I think he’s a really, really good young defenceman. It’s not easy for him to come into this league and have to play the top lines every night and be expected to shut them down.”

James Reimer’s arrival has often been fingered as the major turning point of the season. There is no reasonable argument against that. But the season did not flip-flop just because Reimer came aboard.

Other things were happening simultaneously. The Phaneuf-Aulie pairing was one.  In the 11 games before Aulie, he was scoreless with four points and minus 6. With Aulie he had eight goals in 55 games. He was plus four with three power play goals.

“Keith never gets caught up the ice pinching,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “He never gets caught flatfooted and has to dive at a guy and leave Dion all alone. Dion has to feel a little bit of freedom offensively to be effective. That’s why I think Dion played so well.”

The play of the Leafs’ second-line rivaled Reimer’s story as the most unexpected of the year. Mikhail Grabovski was coming off a 10-goal season. Nikolai Kulemin had scored 16 the previous season and it looked like he would be lucky to ever score 20. Clarke MacArthur was signed as a free agent after his old team, the Atlanta Thrashers, walked away from his arbitration award. The line, to be uncharitable, seemed to have  journeymen written all over it.

Instead, it was one of the most effective units in the league. The three lined up right behind Phil Kessel in goals and points and combined for 70 of the Leafs’ 218 goals. That’s 36 per cent.

You can argue MacArthur’s playmaking abilities made him the line’s true centre. His game melded perfectly with Kulemin’s superb skating, defensive instinct and corner work. That in turn left room for Grabovski’s freewheeling attacking style.

The result was a line that drew the top checkers away from Kessel while remaining conscientious enough to throw against the opposition’s top scorers.

“We were playing second lines and for the most part we were eating them up for the first 10, 15 games,” MacArthur said. “We didn’t spend a lot of time in our end. Kulemin is great in his end. Grabo has such great speed going up the middle. I felt like we were always on the attack.”

“Then we stated playing top pairings. That was a challenge for us. Anytime you are playing the op checking lines or top lines, you have to be consistent. For the most part of the year, I thought we matched up well against other team’s top lines.”

In the end, Grabovski would finish plus 14, easily the best on the team and if Kulemin’s burgeoning game was a pleasant surprise, and MacArthur’s was a validation, Grabovski’s performance was slack-jawed stunning.

“I think Grabo has only scratched the surface of what he is going to do,” said Wilson.

If Grabovski was surprised, he isn’t saying. Just as well.

“Surprised? I don’t think so. I worked hard in the summer and it was my third year. I had a great line this year with good ice time.”

There were more surprises. After being acquired from Anaheim, Joffrey Lupul  re-established himself as a first-line player. Lupul leant badly needed muscle and experience to the first unit.
Carl Gunnarsson escaped the press box and established himself as a dependable top four rearguard. His work with Luke Schenn was excellent.

There are, wouldn’t you know it, complications. Wilson isn’t satisfied with the third defensive pairing of Matt Lashoff and Mike Komisarek and Komisarek’s problematic panic point has pushed him further and further down the depth chart. The hole on the first line - Tyler Bozak’s minus 29 sort of jumps out at you - was never addressed. The power play and penalty kill were poor. Hey, they missed the playoffs.

But if you stack the pleasant surprises against the disappointments, you quickly realize how many things have to go very well for a team to thrive.
The Leafs went into the season without a front-line centre, a dependable goalie, a second line, a star defenceman who was playing that way, a partner for that stud defenceman and a dependable second set of defencemen.

If you go by the second half, and what else is there, that’s five stones out of six. Not bad for one year.
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