Leafs/Rangers Preview

The Toronto Maple Leafs (4-0-1) look to remain undefeated in regulation tonight against the New York Rangers (1-2-1) at the Air Canada Center in what should be a spirited affair.

Some of the storylines heading into tonight's game include Sean Avery (surprise, surprise), Kris Versteeg and Dion Phaneuf.

Let's start with the super pest, Avery. It was only six days ago the 30-year-old agitator was attempting to get under Mike Komisarek's skin. Surprisingly, Avery only received a two-minute minor and no disciplinary action was taken. My personal opinion aside, Avery should anticipate a whole lot of weight flying his way. However, it's important the Leafs don't get too caught up in his antics and avoid taking mindless penalties. If the Leafs avert from their gameplan because of one player, it won't bode well for the team's hope to continue its point-streak in the standings. Although the Leafs claim Avery isn't lingering in their minds, any fan knows it's not that simple when it comes to hockey.

And what better way to transition from Avery to Phaneuf (just like Elisha Cuthbert)? The Leafs captain has made his presence felt both in the dressing room and on the ice in his limited time in Toronto. The "Dion swagger" has injected a fresh dose of life into a team that has firmly grasped a never-say-die mantra. While fans should keep their expectations grounded for the Leafs, it's difficult not to at least get optimistic with Phaneuf leading the charge. But it's not all sunshine and lollipops for the 25-year-old rearguard. Although Phaneuf has recorded three assists in five games, he has yet to light the lamp this season. In fact, he's only scored two goals in 31 games for the Leafs. That's not to say he hasn't been shooting the puck, as he's ranked second on the team with 20 shots this season (one behind leader Phil Kessel).

The problem has been Phaneuf's lack of accuracy. During a FAN 590 interview yesterday, it's interesting that Burke had said the captain's lack of accuracy was an advantage because the opposition can't determine the puck's trajectory, but I can't help but disagree in this regard. If Phaneuf is to ever regain his 20-goal form, he'll have to start unloading those slapshots with some direction. What made the powerplay pairing of Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe so effective was that the former-Leaf was capable of identifying the shooting lanes and using traffic to his advantage when unloading his booming slapshot. But maybe, just maybe, Phaneuf's strategy to shoot wildly as if he's wearing a blindfold might prove effective eventually. That question will be answered soon enough.

Moving on to Versteeg, it's no secret the 24-year-old has struggled thus far. Although he leads all forwards in total ice-time (and even-strength ice-time) with a TOI/G of 21:52, it has not been indicative of his play. While he's been reliable in his own end, despite the -1 +/- rating, he hasn't been able to bury his chances.

I'm not saying this is the sole reason for his struggles, but perhaps moving him from the top-line, who are all right-handed shooters with linemates Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel, could result in more production. Of course, there's some concern with disrupting the chemistry between Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin (whose line has tallied 13 points and has a combined +8 rating), who all happen to be left-handed shooters. Until the Leafs lose a couple of games, it's probably best to avoid any tinkering with the top-six, but it's definitely something to consider in the future.

Versteeg can play any position so it's easy to experiment with different line combinations, and having two left-handed players on his line could result in better chemistry for obvious reasons. And the line of Kulemin-Bozak-Kessel has been effective in the past so there's minimal concern in that regard. But for now, it's best to ride with the current line-up until they falter.

Anyway, here's some statistics to consider for tonight's game:

- Kessel posted 2 goals and an assist last game against the Rangers, which accounts for half of his career points against the team in 14 games.

- Colby Armstrong has seven goals, 15 points, two shorthanded points, two game-winning goals, 48 hits and 16 blocks in 26 career games against the Rangers.

- Alexander Frolov has five goals and seven points in as many games during his career against the
Leafs.

- Sean Avery has six goals and 11 points in as many games in his career against the Leafs.

Prediction: 3-2 Rangers in regulation time.

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