Leafs' home opener strikes appropriate tone
These impressions are snapshots at best, coming as they do two games into what is a jury-rigged NHL season. But this much seems clear: while the Vancouver Canucks have stumbled out of the gate and appear to have serious issues with depth, a guy they thought they could do without - Cody Hodgson - has found a home in Buffalo. Literally. He has a "place," in his words; not just to live but also in Lindy Ruff's lineup.
Hodgson collected his second goal of the season in Monday's 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre, the beneficiary of being in the right place as Christian Ehrhoff unloaded from the point. The Sabres are now 13-5-3 with Hodgson in their lineup since the 10th pick in the 2008 draft joined the Sabres from the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 27 in exchange for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani, and he's no passenger. Hodgson centres the Sabres' first line, between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and is plus-four through the team's first two games of the season.
It speaks volumes that Vanek made clear to head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff and also expressed publicly that he wanted to have Hodgson as his centre, after enjoying an 11-game run they had together in 2011-12. And it must be said that Hodgson helped his own cause during the lockout: working out with Gary Roberts's group and playing 19 games with the Sabres' Rochester affiliate in the American Hockey League, scoring four goals and adding 15 assists. You wonder whether Canucks general manager Mike Gillis might like a do-over. "This is the third year I've worked with Gary, but it's the first time I've been with them from Day 1; it's the first time I've felt healthy or rested enough to start at the base," said Hodgson. "That's important, because Gary's program is all about building you from the ground up."
Until Nazem Kadri scored on the power play with 1:42 left in regulation, the Sabres' first line provided what little there was in the way of hockey in Monday's Leafs opener. Vanek set up Pominville for the Sabres second goal at 4:51 of the second, deftly picking Nikolai Kulemin's pocket in the Leafs end, and it was all muck and mire from that point on. The Leafs had all sorts of puck possession, staking their claim when the Sabres took three minor penalties in a span of 1 minute and 37 seconds in the first period, but barring Dion Phaneuf's hit crossbar there wasn't much accomplished. The heroes of Saturday's 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens – Kadri, Mike Kostka and Leo Komarov – were non-factors until the end of the game (Kostka picked up an assist,) finding rhythm hard to come by in part because of the number of special-teams opportunities.
It's too early, far too early, to get a read on the post-lockout temperature of Leafs fans. But know this: even by the low standards of atmosphere that is the norm for Leafs games, Monday's opener was sleepy until Kadri set the Air Canada Centre on fire with goaltender Ben Scrivens on the bench, then missed an open net with time running out. The Leafs' opening ceremony owed a little to the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, with astronaut Chris Hadfield 'dropping' the puck from the international space station, starting a relay that included Felix Potvin, Darcy Tucker, Darryl Sittler and, ultimately, Johnny Bower. Pretty much what you'd expect when you have an extra three months to plan due to the lockout. Full credit to the organization: it struck an appropriate tone in the days leading up to the home opener. It gave away tickets. Free hockey? Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment?
So hockey took its first tentative step back in Toronto. It wasn't much for 58 minutes, but then in a 48-game schedule there will be few points for artistic merit in the early going. Just a bunch of guys and a bunch of teams trying to find a middle ground. Some of them will also find a home, in the process, much like Hodgson seems to be doing.
"That line has played really well in all three zones so far," Ruff said of his top line, although he rued Pominville missing the open goal with Scrivens out. "They're all good enough goal scorers that if they get five or six chances per game, some goals are going to go in."
Hodgson had a rough night in the face-off circle, losing 17 of 22 draws as the Leafs won 70 per-cent of the face-offs overall. But he is still very much a work in progress; noticeably bigger, obviously happier than in Vancouver.
"I don't know if I can really describe why this line works," he said. "Probably because Thomas and Jason are always looking for plays; they're really creative and I try to get my read off them. I know they're going to drive the puck wide, so my job is to get to the front of the net. I don't know if you can say we actually break the other team down, as much as we're just quick."
Two games is far too early to state much with absolute certainty. But the returns bode well for Hodgson, who seems to have found about as much certainty as anyone can expect in this odd NHL season.