As is always the case when class begins, the more experienced teacher provides a lesson to the lesser accomplished student. Last night at the United Center in Chicago the Toronto Maple Leafs played the part of student while the Hawks taught the lesson.
The Leafs are on their way toward something greater. The signs of future success are all there – evident every time young talents Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri take the ice and do something awe inspiring. However, the odds were greatly stacked against the young Leafs last night in Chi Town against a Hawks team that has only lost 8 regulation games dating back to the beginning of last season.
It didn’t help the Leafs’ chances that the home team was fired up after recently taking heat from head coach Joel Quenneville for losing in a shootout to division rivals the St. Louis Blues. Coach Q called the Hawks’ performance against St. Louis “awful.” See tweet from Tim Sassone Chicago Blackhawks NHL Hockey columnist and sportswriter for the Daily Herald.
#Blackhawks Quenneville on loss: "Awful. I didn't like our game at all. The first 12 minutes I liked, but after that, we just slowed down."
— Tim Sassone (@TimSassone) October 18, 2013
Young Leafs can learn from Blackhawks’ Toews, Kane, and Keith.
NHL superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are not only among the league’s most talented, they also have a knack for outworking opponents on the ice. Accompanied by a stacked supporting cast of effortless skaters and willing net front seekers, the Hawks’ top forwards displayed their proficiency at both ends of the ice last night – a skill many Leafs forwards are still honing.
In the end, it was a great experience for the young Leafs core. They entered the den of the defending Cup champions and kept the scoreline respectable in spite of being greatly outplayed. But more importantly, they learned from the NHL’s benchmark.
In a second intermission interview on CBC‘s Hockey Night in Canada, Leafs centre Nazem Kadri looked exhausted when he told interviewer Cassie Campbell that the Chicago Blackhawks transition game is “unbelievable.”
Kadri played one of his best games of the season last evening. It was obvious on the ice that the kid was able to raise his game when his team needed someone to step up. Kadri scored his 3rd goal of the season in the 2nd period.
As a player who likes to play with the puck, Kadri was privy to a display of ‘unbelievable’ puck possession by the league’s finest example that hard work defensively = time with the puck in the offensive zone.
Blackhawks defender Duncan Keith also shined in the Hawks 3-1 win over their Original 6 brother. The former Norris winner and two time Cup champion closes gaps at the highest level with effortless skating prowess. Keith’s ability to always be in the right place at the right time is instinctual as much as it is a product of his elite mobility, however, the smooth strides taken regularly by the Hawks’ number 2 represent an advantage he possesses over most NHL defenders. That being said, there are a couple of young Leafs who can rival Keith’s tremendous ability to move around the ice.
Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are cut from the same cloth as Duncan Keith. Their arsenal, stocked with lethally similar weapons. The main difference being, the young Leafs are earlier along in the developmental stage. The experience isn’t there yet, but TML’s two future stars are still rising, not yet peaked like Keith. Last night, Gardiner and Rielly could’ve learned a few things from the Hawks stud blueliner, and hopefully they did. Their time will come, and quickly if they can adapt and improve upon the mistakes made against great teams like Chicago.
The Leafs appeared lost in the 2nd period when the Hawks stepped up their attack and commanded control of the contest. It was the unmistakable display of a champion flexing its muscle, proving its superiority for the hundredth time over. Just another day at the office for the Blackhawks.
From a Leafs perspective, the loss represents a guide to greatness conveyed by a battle hardened teacher, not unlike the several schoolings the Hawks received from the Detroit Red Wings over the years, pre 2010.
For the Leafs, last night’s loss was a tough result in the immediate now, but an insightful one moving forward. The Buds saw the champion in all his glory. They witnessed the perfection and persistence of a team with on-ice chemistry that rivals that of the Harlem Globetrotters. They even skated at the Hawks’ speed when they were fortunate enough to leave their zone uncontested, which was not often enough.
As a club with a lot of skill and its best players in their mid-twenties or younger, the Leafs can walk away from last night’s loss a smarter team, equipped with a heightened knowledge of what it takes to be great, shared by a champion.
Life goes on for the Leafs. Although they may have looked subpar last night, they still lay claim to top spot in the Atlantic Division. Moving forward, they have an entire season ahead of them to improve defensively and continue growing as a club.
The Leafs will have the opportunity to get the Hawks back on December 14, when Chicago visits the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.