The truth is that Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have been waiting for games like this for three years. They’ll let the chattering classes call them the biggest games of their tenure or the biggest November games in the better part of a decade. That’s not the point.
Wilson, the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach, has called the home-and-home games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins a measuring stick and since it’s come at a time when they’re stirring the embers in the hockey Hot Stove, the seemingly logical conclusion is his general manager, Burke, is using these two games to zero in on specific needs. Yet in some ways Burke is in a position similar to that of Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays general manager, who was a between-periods visitor to Burke’s booth at the Air Canada Centre. Asked if he had a philosophical predisposition toward judging his team’s needs even at an early stage of the season through games against a team he viewed as a measuring stick, Anthopoulos responded he wouldn’t because, in a 162-game schedule, one or even three games is too small a sample size. And that’s before you factor in “pitchers you face, etc.” Burke, who studies his peers in other sports, must surely have viewed Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss to the Boston Bruins in the first game of a home-and-home series with an acute understanding of the matchup presented. The Leafs, after all, are without their presumed No. 1 goaltender, James Reimer, and without contributions from the useful Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, Matthew Lombardi and – deep breath, here – a rejuvenated Mike Komisarek, all of whom are injured.
And the fact is that the Leafs’ needs won’t change regardless of the outcome of these two games. They still need another first-line forward, preferably a centre with a bit of size, and Burke probably already knows what it will cost if he wants to help stir those embers and aim for somebody like Bobby Ryan. If anything is determined in these next few games, it might be a pecking order of moves to get his team some salary cap room for an acquisition. Measuring stick? The guess here is Burke likely smiled when he heard Wilson drop that nugget, stress the importance of the games to a team full of young players, then follow it up by saying he wasn’t interested in hearing excuses about injuries, either. Wednesday night was a far cry from the two previous games between the teams, in which the Bruins outscored the Leafs 13-2. The Leafs scored first, even though the Bruins had a wide edge early, getting their 11th power-play goal in 24 opportunities.
In fact, if anything, the Bruins might be feeling even better about themselves, not only because they had a 12-0-1 record in November that represented the franchise’s first calendar month without a loss since Jan., 1969, because they were able to use their speed through the neutral zone as effectively as the Leafs. “It seems like a rivalry is being created between us and them,” said the Bruins' Milan Lucic. “They definitely spent more quality time in our zone this time. We spoke a lot about how we needed to get things straightened out in our zone against them.” The big, bad, Bruins didn’t bring a hammer to this game, they brought a paring knife, particularly around Jonas Gustavsson’s crease with a pair of goals on high, surgical shots. The only place they used brute force on the Leafs was in the faceoff circle, where they are the best in the NHL and where in this game they flirted with a 65-per-cent success rate. The third anniversary of Burke’s ascension to Leafs GM passed earlier this week, with precious little partisan back and forth on the airwaves and the Interweb. Instead, there is a sense among Leafs fans that something good is developing here, not first place in the division good but something more than a two-week, photo-finish fight to ninth place. This is a new NHL, with an emphasis on speed and puck support and less time for wasted thuggery. The Leafs aren’t playing catch-up; rather, they are part of the vanguard, and have moved from rebuilding to bolstering.
If the rest of us can see that, rest assured that Burke does, too.