TORONTO – Fast, aggressive, confident.
It’s the vision members of the Toronto Maple Leafs had for the team entering the season, but couldn’t be sure existed until they started playing meaningful games. The early returns have been even better than expected.
Newcomers Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur each had a goal and an assist Saturday as the Maple Leafs displayed a well-balanced attack in a dominant 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
“That’s a great style of hockey for our team,” said MacArthur. “We didn’t really give them a chance to even get anything going. We finished hits everywhere. That’s what we want to do, we want to be rough and we want to slow guys down a lot finishing hits all nights.
“It wears teams out.”
With two wins over division rivals to start the season, the formula has worked perfectly. Toronto’s second victory didn’t come until its 14th game a year ago, which is one of the reasons a good start to this season was thought to be essential.
For coach Ron Wilson, there’s no mystery behind the better start.
“They’re better players—period,” he said.
The Leafs took advantage of an Ottawa team that was playing for the second time in as many nights, having dropped its season-opener 2-1 to Buffalo on Friday night.
It won’t get any easier as the Senators head to Washington for a tough game on Monday. Goals have been extremely difficult to come by so far this season and they’ll be looking to turn things around quickly—only having to look to last year’s Leafs team for a lesson in the dangers of a bad start.
“(It’s) very disappointing,” said Senators coach Cory Clouston. “We thought we had a pretty positive pre-season, had a good week of practice. We’ve been out-worked, out-competed and out-executed in all areas right now.”
Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel and Tim Brent also scored for Toronto (2-0-0), while Jason Spezza replied for the Senators (0-2-0).
The Leafs are confident with the mix they’ve found early in the season. The top line of Versteeg, Kessel and Tyler Bozak has looked extremely dangerous; MacArthur, Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski have provided secondary scoring; and Brent, the third-line centre, has a goal in both games while playing between Fredrik Sjostrom and Colby Armstrong.
The fourth line of Colton Orr, Mike Brown and Mike Zigomanis has contributed in its own right—with the tough guy Orr fighting Matt Carkner in the third period while Brown and Zigomanis each helped the Leafs stay perfect on the penalty kill.
“I think it’s just a collective effort,” said Brent. “We have a lot of fun together and I think it shows on the ice. Guys are willing to stick up for each other, everybody’s so happy for each other when they have success. I think that kind of carries over to team success.
“We have lots of speed—speed seems to kill—and just hard work.”
Unlike the opening win against Montreal, the Leafs didn’t lean very heavily on goaltender J.S. Giguere. He faced just 12 shots through the opening 40 minutes and only surrendered his shutout once the team had already built a 5-0 lead.
It was a thorough victory.
A turnover by Spezza led to Kulemin’s goal at 1:38 of the first period. Versteeg then pressured defenceman Erik Karlsson into a giveaway before Kessel scored his second of the year at 7:51.
MacArthur’s goal came with a well-placed wrist shot off the rush, making it 3-0 at 8:18 of the second period. It seemed there was little the Senators could do.
“Every line’s got good speed I think,” said MacArthur. “If we get good transition, we can be deadly. There’s a lot of good chances tonight—with Versteeg and Kessel and Bozak going, it’s dangerous out there.
“If anything, it buys you a little bit more space because the (defencemen) are backing off—they don’t want to get beat.”
The Leafs will enjoy a couple days off before heading out on the road with a visit to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. They were again preaching the importance of taking the win in stride, especially since Ottawa didn’t seem to have its legs on the tail end of a back-to-back games.
But it was impossible not to note the optimism that was nowhere to be found a year ago.
“The enthusiasm’s a lot better,” said Wilson. “We’ve got better balance to our team.”
Notes:Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar was minus-3 while logging a team-best 25:38 of ice time … There were three fights in the third period … Leafs defenceman Brett Lebda remains out with a shoulder injury and is hoping to make his debut with the team next week … Ottawa’s Ryan Shannon and Toronto’s John Mitchell were healthy scratches … The Leafs won four of six meetings between the teams a year ago … Announced attendance was 19,157.