TORONTO – It's an ever-expanding tale of dominance with the goaltender from East Lansing, Michigan.
Ryan Miller continues to just own the Leafs. The 32-year-old stopped all but one of 35 shots, holding the Leafs fully, and nearly completely, in check as they dropped their home opener by a 2-1 final. Miller boasts a sizzling and rather incredible .666 winning percentage in his career against Toronto (28-14-0), an unbeatable aura of dominance that radiated yet again at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night.
"He's one of the top goalies in the league for a reason and you have to have traffic on him," Dion Phaneuf said after the game, "and we did, we had traffic, but he made some real good saves."
"I felt like we got traffic," Clarke MacArthur concurred. "He got bumped a few times, we got in there and he played a great game. What'd we have, 35 shots?"
By far their best chance to scale the wall that is Miller, the Leafs had an extended five-on-three in the opening frame, but could not get one by the former Vezina Trophy winner. Miller absorbed shot after shot, touched by luck – Phaneuf rung one off the crossbar – when he was beaten.
"When you have almost a full two-minute five-on-three, you're expected to provide some offence, you've got to score on it," said Randy Carlyle, stressing that execution, not effort, was at issue in the loss. "And I think that came back to haunt us later in the game."
Nazem Kadri managed to close a 2-0 gap in the final minutes of a furious third period rally, but Miller was not to be bested again.
1. After a sound road win in the season opener on Saturday – a 2-1 victory in Montreal – the Leafs were anxious to step right into their home opener. Last season, Toronto was one of only five teams with fewer than 20 home wins (18-16-7), dropping 10 consecutive games at one point late in the year. "In most markets there's a comfort zone at home," Carlyle said, prior to Monday's game. "And for the games that I was here for last year, we never seemed to develop that comfort at home, we seemed to be more nervous at home or less effective at home." In hopes of establishing greater comfort at home, Carlyle plans to have his team practice far more frequently at the ACC, shifting from the MasterCard Centre, which was employed almost exclusively for practice during Ron Wilson's tenure.
2. Cody Franson and Mike Komisarek were both scratched against the Sabres, notified by Carlyle at the morning skate. "It's not a message of non-satisfaction or non-satisfactory play by some individuals," said Carlyle, noting the busy 48-game schedule. "We want to make sure we give everybody's that here as much of an opportunity to make a contribution, because they've earned it." Mark Fraser and Korbinian Holzer entered the lineup in their place, reprising Dallas Eakins' go-to pairing with the Marlies last season. Of the two, Fraser – who has NHL experience with New Jersey – looked far more at home. "I thought Fraser did his job," said Carlyle, noting his toughness and safe play alongside John-Michael Liles. "The one thing about [Fraser], he keeps people honest out there." With eight scraps to his name already in the American League this season, Fraser dropped the gloves with Marcus Foligno in the third. As for Holzer, who was playing in just his third NHL game, nerves appeared to be an issue. "I think there's more to come from [Korbinian]," said Carlyle of the 24-year-old, who played just over 15 minutes alongside Carl Gunnarsson.
3. Franson and Komisarek were both solid for the Leafs in the season-opening win against Montreal; for Komisarek in fact, the 16-minute effort may have been his best in quite some time. More curious is the decision facing Carlyle with the impending return of Jake Gardiner, who has been out with a concussion since December 8th. Gardiner has been cleared for contact and is expected to join the club at practice on Tuesday. What remains to be seen is how Carlyle employs the 22-year-old. Last year, Gardiner was paired with a rotating cast that included Komisarek, Franson, and the since-departed Luke Schenn. Before his injury with the Marlies, Gardiner was paired with Mike Kostka, who has since taken over on the top pairing with the Leafs alongside the aforementioned Phaneuf.
4. Carlyle was frank in his assessment of Joffrey Lupul's recent five-year contract extension, noting his sometimes murky relationship with Lupul in Anaheim. "[He] and I didn't see eye-to-eye in years gone past," Carlyle said, a day after the extension was announced. "He's a much different player now than what he was then. And that's partly [because] A) I didn't give him the right situation or didn't put him in the right situation at that time and B) he suffered almost a career-ending back injury and he's taken a different approach to his preparation, both physically and mentally. He's a much more complete hockey player today than he was five or six years ago … I think [Lupul] has shown a tremendous amount of leadership, a lot of courage, and a lot of grit and determination to get where he is."
"He's a great leader," added Tyler Bozak. "He's a guy that guys gravitate to off the ice if they have questions. He's someone who works hard off the ice and on the ice, every game, every practice. I think it's well-deserved for them to lock him up and him to get that deal. He's a huge part of this team moving forward."
5. Kadri scored for the second time in as many games, making a late impact in 15-plus minutes. With what figures to be an extended NHL look this season, the 22-year-old is challenged to cement himself as a core piece of the Leafs future. Carlyle offered a simple message to the assortment of youth, including Kadri, on the roster. "With our younger players, just keep it simple," he said. "Don't get too far ahead of yourself, expect the unexpected, [and] prepare yourself for some peaks and valleys. You never really recognize the peaks, you always recognize the valleys as a young player. Just stay on an even-keel, do what you do best, we're not asking you to do anything more, but ordinary's not good enough for our group."
Quote of the Night
"When you're an offensive player and you get offensive minutes and you get an opportunity on the five-on-three you have to execute. That's the reality of it. You have to have your best players providing you the offence that's required in these games in those situations."
16 total shots on seven power plays for the Leafs, only one finding its way beyond Miller.
Stat Watch II
Toronto won 45 of 70 draws, good for 70%. Bozak was nearly unbeatable, winning 22 of 26, a red-hot mark of 85%.
In just his second NHL game, Kostka logged over 27 minutes, notching his second point on Kadri's late goal.
Charged with slowing the Sabres fiery top line of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson, the line of MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin was on the ice for both Sabre goals. The first marker by Hodgson was bad luck, a deflection in front of Ben Scrivens, the second goal by Pominville a product of Kulemin and Carl Gunnarsson getting caught in the Sabres zone.
Under the Radar
Tyler Bozak and his expanding role under Randy Carlyle: Bozak averaged nearly 19 minutes last season, but rarely killed penalties as Ron Wilson looked to keep him fresh under the heavy strain of first-line minutes. Two years ago, Bozak logged 148 minutes shorthanded, but totaled just 50 minutes last year. In the early going this winter, Carlyle has employed the 26-year-old as a primary killer alongside Jay McClement.
The Leafs visit Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the opening half of a back-to-back set.