Be honest: In your wildest dreams, did you expect the Maple Leafs to be this bad through a quarter of the season? After a shootout "win" over the vaunted Capitals in perhaps Vesa Toskala's best game since 2007-08, they are nine points behind our Islanders.
Just 21 games in, it's reasonable to expect things to get a little better for the Leafs. Already 21 games in, it's unreasonable to expect they won't be giving Boston at least a top-10 pick.
But for tonight anything goes, as a suddenly whimpering road trip comes to a close with John Tavares's first NHL visit to Toronto, where 100 family and friends are expected and 2,000 media members will eat each other for a bite of manufactured controversy in the Center of the Universe.
Another uncharacteristic Leafs goalie performance could turn this one. A big special teams night could be the difference. A ref's call that enrages Leafs fans could do it. Or, like Saturday in St. Louis, it could come down to one club winning 5-on-5 running away. But I'm expecting goals, as these two coaches think offense first -- even if neither has quite enough offense to make that philosophy pay off (Toronto: 2.52 GF/gm, 23rd; NYI: 2.70, 18th).
Win, and the Islanders' seven-game trip finishes 3-2-2. Lose outright, and their total regulation losses will have increased by 50% in the course of a single weekend. Go to overtime, and the ambiguous misery of the NHL's "The People Demand a Winner" bonus-point system means you can spin half of these results in any myriad of ways.
The Islanders had two chances this weekend to pull ahead of the Rangers, who lost to Florida and are now 11-10-1. Now, life does not revolve around the team my dad called the Short Island Smurfs (supposedly thanks to broadcasting legend Gus Kyle, though I've never found a second source for that). But no matter the year, it's fun to feel some schadenfreude toward the Rangers. Perhaps tonight we leap into fourth place in the Atlantic, if only for just a moment?
Defense: Brendan Witt will re-enter the lineup. Maybe we'll get an update and I'll edit this post, but is anyone else hoping Andrew MacDonald is not the one who sits in his stead? Just 23, the Judique, Nova Scotia native (you have to pull for hockey's Maritime* natives, no?) and '06 6th-rounder has been a bit of a revelation, doing everything necessary at Bridgeport and now in the NHL to prove he deserves a longer look, with a tougher load.
*Random fact: The combined population of Canada's three Maritime provinces is about one-fourth of Long Island's.
I never do this with such a small sample as three games, but here I go, so never say never: MacDonald's relative +/- (i.e. +/- per 60 minutes relative to his teammates -- it's the "Rating" column in the following link) looks positively lovely in comparison to his teammates. Now, that's in limited and possibly protected minutes (his quality of teammates is high, and quality of competition is low -- in a minimal sample). By not being on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against yet, he looks good, period. I've seen him make just one defensive play that looked really bad and several defensive plays that looked really good. With Radek Martinek gone for the year, MacDonald is at minimum our #7 defenseman. Seems we should see whether he's worthy of the spot, no?
The Tambellini Situation: I have never spoken with Scott Gordon and do not have the luxury of deciphering his code in person. But everything about how he's handled #15 tells me he believes he's just a guy with scoring punch who must adapt his game to a "hustling, physical 3rd-liner" in order to earn a spot game after game. Somewhat like Blake Comeau, as a matter of fact. What always rings in my head is Gordon's comparison of Tamby to Andy Hilbert's career trajectory, in terms of adapting his game to the NHL (apologies, but I can't remember if it was Logan or Botta who got that quote, and my archives aren't clear on it). Or as Gordon told Katie Strang last week:
"Going to the tough areas, winning puck battles, getting into shooting lanes," Gordon said of the details lacking from Tambellini lately."When you stop doing the little things and you don't score, what are your contributions?"
I don't have a problem with that. (Admittedly, I have flip-flopped on Tambellini's ceiling 100 times in the last 3-plus years.) If he went on some sort of Moulson tear, maybe the view would change (again) and his evolution would continue. I know some here want to see him in a featured role; hell, if I were coach I'd at least not sit him for five or three games at a time.
But there are a lot -- a ton -- of third-line NHL players who spent their entire pre-NHL lives as the best among their peers, only to discover that in the NHL, that simply doesn't translate to the league's top 180 forwards. So they adjust. Or they accept life in the AHL or Europe. I think this is the message Gordon is sending Tambellini, and while the mechanics can be debated, in the end I suspect he's right. Either way, I'm impressed by the positive attitude Tambellini continues to employ in this situation.
The Leafs Situation
I admit I want to see the Leafs continue to struggle simply because any bizonkers media market (hello, New York) brings absurd melodrama to a whole new level whenever its featured team (hello, Yankees) struggles. It's so exaggerated in Toronto right now that one, um, writer, is picking candidates to replace Ron Wilson that -- are you sitting down? -- include Wayne Gretzky, Ted Nolan and Mike Keenan. Yeah, okay.
The Leafs have very real problems, of course, in every area not named Phil Kessel. Old friend Jason Blake has two goals. Last year's rookie stud Luke Schenn -- never the offensive equal of the three defensemen drafted before him -- has struggled mightily along with the team. Then there's ... the goaltending: Even with Saturday's performance, Toskala's save percentage is .869, old friend Joey MacDonald's in three games was .875, and new hope Jonas Gustavsson is just a 2008 MacDonald-like .901.
All of which is not really news, but anyway: We have good reason to expect a win tonight, and good reason to be crushed by a loss. Beginning Wednesday at home, the Islanders close out November with games against the three best teams in the Eastern Conference.
So tonight: a little urgency, please. Let's. Go. Islanders.