Leafs’ Rookie Tournament – Game 2

By Randy Nicholson
The Maple Leafs’ rookies appeared to be far more ready to play from the outset of last night’s match versus the Young Rangers. Virtually everyone in the line-up demonstrated considerably more jump than they had against the Hurricanes on Friday evening. Toronto’s passing and team play were also considerably sharper throughout. As a result, the game was far more entertaining one to watch.

The Leafs dominated the first frame from a territorial perspective but neither team was able to open the scoring. Toronto’s forwards were going hard to the net at every opportunity and several found themselves on top of or behind the beleaguered Rangers’ keeper. There were two notable occurrences in the 1st period from a physical standpoint. Enforcers Lariviere and Mallette squared off in a way that made it seem as though they had already done so on many previous occasions. In this instance, the Leafs’ Lariviere scored a very decisive win by TKO. Later in the period, Mallette (having returned following minor repairs) attempted to freeze the puck along the wall, clearly frustrating Mihail Travnicek in his attempts to work it free. With no whistle forthcoming, the bouncing Czech continued to hack away at the disk held in the Ranger’s feet until the big defender suddenly collapsed and went down as if he had been shot. Travnicek sheepishly turned and skated away – I’ll leave the other details of the incident up to your imagination. Through for the evening, this was certainly not a night to remember for young Kris Mallette.
The Rangers opened the scoring in the second stanza on the powerplay. The game then turned against the New Yorkers following a cowardly elbow delivered by Tommy Bolduc to the head of Peter Reynolds. Jacques Lariviere, assuming the role that he will almost certainly handle with St. John’s this season, became involved and proceeded to pound the Rangers’ goon into submission. Reynolds (having quickly recovered his senses) also sought to make Bolduc’s acquaintance but the dazed thug chose to cover up and would have no more. Insult was added to injury when the Rangers emerged from this fracas shorthanded for a full 5 minutes and the Leafs proceeded to grab the lead on goals by Boyes (nifty feed from Murovic) and Galbraith (crisp cross ice feed from Rourke). Galbraith made it 3-1 shortly thereafter, combining nicely with (perhaps) future linemates Delisle and Cereda.

New York cut the margin to one shortly before the end of the second period and then tied it up in the opening minute of the third. The game settled into a war of attrition as the building heated up and the ice deteriorated rapidly. Roughly two minutes from the end of regulation time (as both benches undoubtedly pondered potential shoot-out participants) Toronto settled the result with the Ponikarovsky-Vernarsky-Travnicek unit creating all kinds of mayhem near the Rangers’ goal before the Plymouth star snared a loose puck and buried the winner.

Final score Leafs 4 – Rangers 3. A purely subjective scouting report follows:

Goaltenders (Racine-Centomo) – Young Jean-Francois Racine played the entire game and was every bit as solid as Centomo had been during Toronto’s first game. He is considerably bigger than his QMJHL counterpart and stayed on his feet to a much larger extent. He seemed slightly fooled on New York’s 2nd and 3rd goals but generally played well and seems to be a promising prospect. The Maple Leafs suddenly seem to have an embarrassment of riches between the pipes.

Defensive pairing # 1 (Reynolds-Zion) – This duo had clearly been Toronto’ best during the Carolina game and was so again last night. Peter Reynolds was physical and tidy in his own end but didn’t stand out quite as much as he had on Friday evening. Jonathon Zion, on the other hand, improved markedly on the fine effort tuned in against the Hurricanes. Zion was dangerous on almost every shift and constantly generated scoring chances for himself and for his team mates. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this young wheelhorse approach 80-90 points with Ottawa in the OHL during 2000 / 2001. In order to succeed in the professional ranks, Zion may need to be paired with a much larger partner who can compensate for his size limitations in defensive coverage. That said, he has truly been a revelation in this tournament and is probably one of Toronto’s most exciting prospects.

Defensive pairing # 2 (Svoboda-Cote) – Petr Svoboda wasn’t nearly a feisty as he had been in Friday’s game but was perhaps even more dominating. He fairly oozes confidence with each movement and uses superior mobility to control every square inch of the defensive zone. The advance hype on this player was clearly spot on. 2000 draftee JP Cote made his tournament debut last night and was a willing physical participant, handing out a couple of hard hits. He tended to his defensive responsibilities efficiently and will be an interesting player to watch in the future if he can continue to improve his skating skills.

Defensive pairing # 3 (Rourke-Zavoral) – Alan Rourke played much more effectively than he had on Friday night. His positioning was infinitely better and he also made a heads-up play on Toronto’s 2nd goal. Vaclav Zavoral was simply outstanding again, showcasing mobility and puck skills not commonly seen is such a big player. He simply owned the front of Toronto’s net whenever he was on the ice with more countless Rangers’ attackers tasting his big blue glove just prior to landing unceremoniously on their backsides. He will almost certainly play in the NHL some day.

Forward line # 1 (Galbraith-Cereda-Delisle) – This line contained 2 of Toronto’s most improved players on the night. Lance Galbraith all but earned himself a deal with the Leafs, scoring two pretty goals while continuing to accept all fistic challenges as well. If paired with Cereda in Ottawa this year, Galbraith could become a household name. Luca Cereda was far more effective than he had been during the Carolina game. He seemed confident, poised and fully involved in the game from a physical standpoint. He generated numerous offensive chances and controlled the game’s tempo just as a former 1st Rounder is expected to do. Miguel Delisle wasn’t quite as noticeable as his linemates but earned 2 assists played an effective game at both ends of the ice.

Forward line # 2 (Murovic-Boyes-Warren) – Brad Boyes was also much more effective than he had been against the Hurricanes and was a constant threat to score when on the ice. He also appeared to be playing with a decided nasty streak and is surprisingly sturdy for a player who still has a great deal of growing to do. Expect a big season from Boyes with Erie of the OHL this year. Murovic is a large physical winger who was much more proficient with the puck than he had earlier shown. Morgan Warren, a QMJHL grad, made his tournament debut on this line and looked very comfortable. He is also a big player who moves well and who seems to possess a goal scorer’s instinct for finding high percentage opportunities to unload a very heavy shot.

Forward line # 3 (Travnicek-Vernarsky-Ponikarovsky) – All things considered, this may have been Toronto’s best line on the night and it was very fitting that they produced the winning tally as time wound down. Kris Vernarsky again turned in a sound performance and added a larger amount of offensive pressure to his repertoire. Travnicek wasn’t as aggressive as he had been against Carolina (the unfortunate Kris Mallette incident notwithstanding) but was much more effective from an overall perspective. He seems to possess good wheels, strong puck skills and has the potential to be a very interesting player when he concentrates on playing the game. Toronto’s best overall forward last night was Alex Ponikarovky. The big Ukrainian pounded puck carriers, forechecked, killed penalties and generally drove Ne
w York’s defensemen to distraction with an awesome combination of size, strength and speed. If the new coaching staff in St. John’s can help Ponikarovky to continue expanding his present offensive arsenal, he could arrive in Toronto much sooner than expected.

Forward line # 4 (Lariviere-Gagnon-Ondrus) – Jonathan Gagnon again demonstrated a very mature game, marked by sound positioning, intelligent use of his body and quick offensive thrusts when the opportunity presented itself. Ben Ondrus, though not as productive as he had been against the Hurricanes on Friday, showed speed, tenacity and dogged the puck all night long. A pro contract with the Toronto organization is likely in the offing for this free agent forward as well. Jacques Lariviere did little other than mead out punishment to New York transgressors but he couldn’t possibly have done a better job in this regard. Lariviere absolutely disassembled the Rangers’ two largest players with skill and precision unseen by Maple Leafs fans since Wendel Clark’s heyday.

Final thoughts: Although young players like Yakushin, Smith (and possibly Svoboda) are already set to make a concerted bid for employment on the blueline in Toronto, the Leafs also have a significant number of prospects developing behind these players. During this tournament, the promise shown by Reynolds, Zion, Zavoral, Rourke and others makes one wonder how the team can possibly find spots for them all. Depth breeds patience and it is a certainty that these defenders will be afforded time to learn their craft properly at the junior and minor professional levels before graduating to the NHL. The Maple Leafs’ organization now seems very far removed from the dark days of the past when raw kids like Benning, Boimistruck, Gill, Nylund, Iafrate and Richardson were simply thrown to the wolves in the absence of a better plan.

I had the distinct pleasure of attending last night’s contest with the greatest Maple Leafs fan that I have ever known, Mr. Ralph Nicholson (who also happens to be my father). I owe my life long passion for the team to this man and I will be eternally grateful for this wonderful gift. Thanks Dad!