BOSTON – The shiny luster of a near flawless record is cleverly masking a few fault-lines for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel sparked a third period comeback on Wednesday night, scoring power-play goals 27 seconds apart as the Leafs erased a 3-1 deficit, defeating the Jets 4-3 in a shootout. The comeback gave the Leafs nine out of a possible ten points to open the season, a near perfect mark in a five-game homestand.
There are certainly a host of positives: Kessel and Lupul are flying out of the gate, Dion Phaneuf is re-emerging as an elite defenceman, James Reimer is providing stability in goal, and Matt Frattin is already showing that he belongs in the NHL.
But beyond the 4-0-1 mark are a few concerning signs, issues that will need to be addressed with the Bruins, Canadiens, Flyers, and Rangers up next on a four-game road trip.
It was the Phil Kessel line and nothing else again on Wednesday night. Kessel and Lupul combined for all three Toronto goals, sparking the only offence of consequence against the Jets. The trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin struggled again, totaling a combined two shots in victory. MacArthur was replaced by Frattin in the third period before leaving the game with an injury.
"We've got to find a way to get the Grabovski line going a little bit more," said Ron Wilson, following the game.
Kessel's dominance continues to impress – he had a goal and two assists, giving him 7 goals and 12 points so far. The 28-year-old Lupul meanwhile, now has four goals and seven points, continuing an early emergence after joining the Leafs midway through last season. "Things are really going our way right now," said Lupul. "We're getting some bounces and we're playing well too, but some of the goals we're getting now I don't expect to be getting throughout the entire season."
"I think we're going pretty good right now," added Kessel. "We're clicking; we're finding each other out there. Right now, things are going in for us so hopefully it keeps going."
The Kessel line has had a hand in 12 of the Leafs' 16 goals this season, but beyond that there's not much going right offensively. Grabovski has just one goal, Kulemin a goal and an assist and MacArthur just a single assist. Frattin – who notched the shootout winner – has yet to score but has shown pop in every game and is going to move back alongside Grabovski and Kulemin in Boston on Thursday night.
"Bright player," said Grabovski of Frattin. "He's fast, he's good, but we need to work hard, don't think about [our] line, just keep going and do hard work on the ice."
Eventually, Kessel and Lupul will cool off and when that point arrives the Leafs will need another source of offence. With Matthew Lombardi still shaking off the rust and Colby Armstrong sidelined with a lower body injury, the time is now for the Grabovski line to find the right tune.
Aside from the absence of secondary scoring, this is the most concerning trend for the Leafs to date as they've yet to put together a smooth sixty-minute effort.
In each of their first five games, they've suffered from either a first period malaise or one lasting slightly longer. In the season opener against Montreal they were outshot 14-4 in the opening period – held in the game by James Reimer – and charged back for a 2-0 victory. Two nights later against Ottawa, the Leafs came out flying, jumping ahead 5-1 before hanging on by the slimmest of margins in a 6-5 win. A week later versus Calgary, they overcame a 2-0 deficit, rallying behind Kessel and Lupul in a 3-2 triumph. This week, they suffered from a pair of forty minute slides, striking back to earn a point against the Avalanche and a full two against the Jets.
Moving pucks out of the defensive zone, and triggering a speedy offensive game has been an early challenge; Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek both struggled in that respect on Wednesday night. Neither saw the ice in the waning minutes of the third period or overtime.
"Our strength is our speed and the skill we have up front," said Wilson. "It's got to be quick. If we're not head-manning pucks quickly and just chipping it and using our speed to get in on the forecheck we're not a very good team."
Jake Gardiner stepped up with Schenn and Komisarek fighting the puck, offering the Leafs a steady presence with the puck in 25 minutes of action. "I thought he played great tonight," said Wilson. "We gave him a lot more opportunities to show us what he can do and he didn't let us down."
While the power-play did manage two goals in victory on Wednesday, only one could be considered a real home run. After a slick faceoff win from David Steckel, Dion Phaneuf wisely lured in the Jets defence with a shot-fake before dishing it to Kessel for a laser past Ondrej Pavelec. Lupul's second of the game moments earlier was a "lucky" pass that deflected off the stick of Tobias Enstrom.
"I had to get Steckel out there if it was just to win a faceoff in the offensive zone," said Wilson. "That was the big difference. You get to set up in the zone and run your power-play instead of chasing it down the ice."
In the opening two periods, the man advantage struggled to even set-up in the offensive zone. After an OT loss to Colorado on Monday, John-Michael Liles dubbed the unit a "work in progress". The unit sits at 16 per cent (4-25), but has come up empty in three of the five games.
On the opposite end of the things, the penalty kill has certainly showed early improvement with a slew of new faces up front, including Steckel, Lombardi and Phillipe Dupuis. But on Wednesday night, the unit allowed a pair of goals – one an Enstrom point shot thru traffic, the second a rebound resulting from a Mike Brown broken stick. Steckel's made a big difference in the faceoff circle, winning 77 per cent of his draws shorthanded (26-34), but after five games, the penalty kill still sits at just 77 per cent (17-22), not exactly where Wilson would probably like it.
"As of now we've had the same pairings and I think we're getting used to playing with each other," said Brown before Wednesday's game. "We have guys that are willing to block shots – Steckel, Lombardi, Dupuis – they're all blocking shots and it's a battle to get in there and a will to block and battle for pucks to get it out.
"We've been doing that. We've been changing real quick and keeping fresh legs. No one's been really caught out too long so we just have to keep doing that."
The Leafs take on a frustrated Bruins squad at the TD Garden on Thursday night. The reigning Stanley Cup champions have lost three of their four games at home, including a 4-1 defeat by Carolina on Tuesday.
Jonas Gustavsson is set to make his first start of the season in Boston. Gustavsson last played on Sept. 30 in the Leafs' second-to-last pre-season game against Detroit. "I've been looking forward to it for a while now," said Gustavsson. "The team's been playing good, Reims has been playing good so it's hard to get a spot, but you just have to keep working and sooner or later you're going to get a chance. That's what I've been doing."
Gustavsson has thrived in his brief career against the Bruins, totaling a 2-1-1 record with 1.70 goals against average and a .940 save percentage.