Who: Toronto Maple Leafs (3-0-0)
When: Tonight, 7:00PM EST
The Dangermen: I don’t know the last time I or anyone has said this but it needs to be said: the Leafs are kind of good.
Offensively, they are deep. They have 11 guys with multiple points through the first three games so far, with Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond tied for the team-lead with four points.
The guys to be really scared of up front start with the talented, the enigmatic, the awkward Phil Kessel. He’s the star of the Leafs and he was recently paid like one, getting a new eight-year, $64M extension. He’s an elite skater, possessing explosive speed and his hands are just as good. He’s one of the league’s most consistent and dynamic goal scorers and he’s a threat from just about anywhere on the ice. What’s really elevated him the last year or so is the fact that he’s developed into a strong passer, creating offense for others when space dries up for him.
Lupul is another to watch, as he and Kessel were the scoring leaders two years ago. He had a shortened season last year, suffering from a broken forearm. Lupul kind of came out of nowhere when he lit up the scoring charts back then, a throw-in in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. But he works well with Kessel, forming a bond and making things happen.
There’s also Nazem Kadri, who should be eager to prove last year wasn’t a fluke considering he got saddled with a bridge contract while division rival Cody Hodgson got paaaaaid. He’s undersized but smart and a solid playmaker. Also considered the Second Coming to most of Leafland but take that with a grain of salt.
The rest of the forwards are either dangerous offensively (James Van Riemsdyk), solid two-way types (Dave Bolland, Tyler Bozak), or a little of both (David Clarkson when he returns from suspension). They also have a few guys who will stand up for the team, starting with Colton Orr.
The Leafs are deep and dangerous up front, which will surely make Leaf Nation more obnoxious than it already is. Prepare yourselves.
The Defenders: This group is up for a bit of debate, mostly because Dion Phaneuf is such a polarizing figure in the league. Some (Leaf Nation) believe him to be an elite defenseman while others (everyone else) believes him to be one of the most overrated players in the league. Regardless, he’s their captain, one of their top-pairing defensemen, and someone who will chip in with his fair share of points. If he can keep himself in position, he’s actually pretty good.
The rest of the unit is solid, if unspectacular. Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger, and Cody Franson are good two-way defenders, with Franson being the most dangerous of the bunch when the puck is in the other end. Mark Fraser joins them as a solid sixth defenseman who will stand up for his teammates, as evidenced by his 16 PIMs already this season.
There are two wild cards in the group and we’ll go with the younger of the two. Rookie defenseman Morgan Reilly is the uber-prospect many in Leaf Nation have been waiting to see and he’s going to get an opportunity to start this season. He’s only seen one game so far but he’ll likely get a chance to stick. Until then, Leaf fans will fawn over the next coming of Bobby Orr, Nick Lidstrom, and Jesus.
The other wild card already has a top six spot. Jake Gardiner is either the messiah or just another decent defenseman depending on who you talk to. Some consider him to be the next top pair defender for the Leafs while others merely see a solid defenseman. Either way, it’s fun to read some of the proposed trades Leafs fans would turn down to keep Gardiner.
Puck Stoppers Inc.: It’s early in the year and we only have a limited sample size, but the Leafs have a pretty good duo in net.
James Reimer is the incumbent starter, a solid option who looked ready at times last year to be the true #1. He won’t have to be, though, because the Leafs traded for Jonathan Bernier in the off-season. Bernier has been stuck behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles for the last few years, widely considered ready to become a starting goaltender somewhere.
Bernier will get his third start of the season tonight against the Avs. He’s a traditional butterfly goalie who uses his size and technique to take away the bottom portion of the net, so the Avs are going to have to tune their shots a bit higher. He had a rough outing against Ottawa, a shootout win, but the Sens are fast, energetic, and should be one of the best teams in the East. That performance also followed a 31-save win against Philly, so bad starts are going to show up here and there.
Neither is likely to get a stranglehold on the starting job but combined, they should be one of the best duos in the new Eastern Conference.
How the Avs match up: This is quite the matchup on paper. The Leafs have top ten units both on the power play and penalty kill while the Avalanche have a top-15 power play and the top ranked penalty kill.
Colorado is also second in goals for/against in the league with Toronto eighth and 16th respectively. The Leafs are a good skating team, so the Avs will need to keep pace and stay physical, hoping to push the smaller Leaf forwards off their games. Staying out of the box and limiting the power play opportunities for this group will be a huge key if the Avalanche want to improve to 3-0-0.
Varlamov will also need to be at his best again. He’s been phenomenal through two games and this could be a statement win for the Avs early in the year and one for Varlamov in specific.
Key Matchup: Avs defense vs the deep Leaf forward corps.
Cower in fear if: The Avs defense can’t at least get in the way of the speedy Leaf forwards, limiting their chances if not their shots.
Varlamov isn’t the same dazzling stopper we saw in the first two games.
We can’t stay out of the box.
Laugh maniacally if: Varlamov plays his nards off. (this may just stay here forever and ever)
The defense isn’t shutting down the Leafs but at least getting them towards the outside a bit more than the Leafs would like.
The forwards create havoc in front of Bernier.
Silly predictions: The defense looks embarrassingly bad on two goals but keeps itself together just enough in the end; Varlamov looks human but comes up big when necessary; Nathan MacKinnon gets his first NHL goal.
Final: 4-3 Avalanche
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