Hockey is back & if the first game of the pre-season by the rookie Hawks & Leafs was any indication, the players are chomping at the bit for some meaningful action.
There were some big bodies in both lineups, the leafs featuring two forwards listed at 6'5, 200+, and another forward & 2 defensemen at 6'4, 200+. The hawks had their own 6'5, 200+ forward in Jimmy Hayes, and defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin at 6'6, 229.
In a spirited, well-played game, featuring 3 fights and some heavy hitting, the rookie hawks looked like the more poised team for stretches, but couldn't hold on to a 2-1 third period lead, eventually yielding 3 goals in the final 10 minutes.
Brandon Saad was the most dangerous looking hawk, making a beautiful pass to set up Chris DiDomenico in front in the 2nd period to tie the score at 1, then skated in on a 2 on 1, deking the goalie & flipping a deft backhand past Garret Sparks to put the hawks up 2-1 in the 3rd.
The hawks squandered 4 power play opportunities - they managed to control the puck in the offensive zone for the most part, but didn't get enough shots off, spending much of the time cycling & passing, looking to set up a teammate for a better chance that often never came. The penalty kill looked good, particularly early in the game, aggressively killing off the leafs powerplay which never really threatened. The Leafs had two power plays on the night.
The last hawk power play proved costly, as they failed to convert and at the end of it gave up possession at center, where the Leafs Kenny Ryan managed to elude a Hawk defenseman and fired a wrist shot from inside the circle that beat Mac Carruth high on the glove side, to tie the game at 2.
A few minutes later, leaf defenseman Jake Gardiner rushed up the ice and moved in on the right wing and from a similar position as Ryan, fired a wrister that beat Carruth high again, this time on the stick side. Carruth, who is 6'2 and takes up a lot of the net, went down early again, leaving the top of the net exposed & was unable to react quickly enough. He gets the benefit of the doubt on Ryan's goal, but not on the game winner - the 3rd leaf goal was all on him.
The hawks tried to mount a come back, but couldn't find an opening as the leafs did an effective job of collapsing defensively & clogging the front of the net. In the final minute, the hawks got caught in their own zone, with the leafs pressing, and Gardiner moved in from the blueline to finally convert from a scramble in front, beating Carruth for a 4th time.
Overall, both teams played well in an entertaining game. It was clear they were both anxious to get started and make a good impression on the coaches & brass in attendance.
Early in the first, after some scuffling in front of the hawk net, where the hawks picked up a minor penalty, 5'10 Andrew Shaw didn't back down from a challenge by 6'5 Jamie Devane. Shaw ended up taking the worst of it, absorbing several solid shots including a vicious uppercut, but didn't go down against the much bigger Devane, who later scored the game's first goal on a wraparound play from behind the net, midway through the first.
Rob Flick avenged Shaw's loss by pounding on a leaf rookie in a 2nd period fight, in a much fairer tilt in terms of size match-up. The towering 6'6 Simon Danis-Pepin finished the fight card for the night, with a heavyweight tilt versus 6'4 Dave Cowan with both players landing some good punches and then apparently agreeing to call it off before the linesmen stepped in.
Some observations on some of the notable hawk rookies and others who stood out to me.
1st round picks Mark McNeil & Philip Danault didn't look out of place, though they appeared smallish compared to some of the guys they were up against. They are still only 18 (their birthdays are two days apart in February) so they have a lot of time to improve & perhaps get bigger. Danault's skating actually impressed me a bit more than McNeil's.
David Toews, even smaller than McNeil & Danault, but he didn't shy away from the tough areas, and showed some good hockey sense. He broke up a leafs chance on one play by coming back hard on the back-check, reminiscent of his older brother. I think he has a legit shot, perhaps as a 3rd/4th liner.
Jimmy Hayes - good skater for his large frame and has some nice hands - he controlled or came up with the puck in traffic a couple of times - the only thing I would have liked to have seen more from him is using (i.e. throwing) his body around to create some space for himself & his linemates.
Andrew Shaw - have to admire his courage standing in against a much bigger player & taking his lumps, in a fight I think the linesmen should have moved in earlier to stop, given the mismatch in size. I question how long he can last if he keeps that up tho.
Brandon Saad - looked dangerous whenever he had the puck, which was a fair amount. His line with DiDomenico & Danault were involved in both hawk goals & controlled the play for the most part when they were on the ice. One guy to keep an eye on.
Other forwards were ok - No one looked out of place or outmatched - and were noticeable at certain points. The coaches mixed the lines up at points throughout the game to get some offense going, but to not much avail. There were no "superstars" out there, but some solid players. Rensfeldt & Gilbert stood out for their size, but need to use it more. Phillipe Paradis left the game in the 1st after taking a crunching hit in the offensive zone, where his head appeared to be smashed against the end glass. He did not return.
On defense, I tried to keep an eye on Dylan Olsen, 1st round pick from 2009 - good size, decent puck handler, needs to shoot more from the point, especially on the pp (as do all hawk Dmen, rookies or otherwise). The one thing that concerns me is his skating - He seems ok once he gets up to speed, but he got caught flat-footed a couple of times when he was forced to turn around. I don't think that will cut it in the NHL.
Shawn Lalonde appeared to be a better skater than Olsen, but doesn't have the size or physicality - was on the point for the 1st pp unit, but didn't connect.
Stanton & Youds were solid, Stanton having good size, though perhaps not the offensive upside as Olsen perhaps. He did show some good sense moving in from the point to keep the puck in deep on one play, but need to see more of him (as with others) to get a better handle.
Simon Danis-Pepin - at 23, he was probably the oldest "rookie" out there - as tall as he is, he looks slender at 229 and too easy to knock off the puck as his center of gravity probably gives smaller guys leverage on him. He's not a bad skater, puck handling is questionable - he lost it in his skates at one point, tho recovered. Hawks could have drafted Tyler Myers but took Kyle Beach instead.
Goaltending - Carruth went the entire game (Leafs switched goalies halfway through) - he wasn't overly tested, except for the goals that beat him - he went down too early on at least the winner, and looked a bit slow on the wrap-around first leaf goal.
Overall, not a bad performance, especially considering these guys have had exactly one practice together. While they stood up to the physical challenges, it seemed there were only certain guys who were consistently looking to take the body & throw some big checks. I think the "senior" hawks need more of that and the rookies that show that will give themselves a better chance of making an impression with the big club's coaches.
Well see how they do tomorrow against Ottawa, which has some excellent rookie prospects in their system, with Binghamton winning the Calder Cup last year, plus several highpicks in 2011 draft. The rookie Sens beat the rookie Pens 4-0 earlier in the day.