Leafs Jittery Until Too Late
By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 24) – In the days of wooden hockey sticks, we might have suggested the Maple Leafs were squeezing sawdust out of their lumber during much of Thursday night’s visit to the Air Canada Centre by San Jose. Not knowing what a player could squeeze out of today’s composite stick (graphite-dust?), let’s just say the home team was rather taut during the first 40 minutes of a 2-1 loss to the Sharks.
I’ve seen it a million times in the years I’ve watched the Leafs – as a rabid follower in the 1970s and a reporter from the mid-’80s on. The team is in a slump; the city in an uproar, with fans and media offering “insight” as to what ails the club. Leafs come out at home knowing that any mistake could lead to a goal – the players merely trying not to err rather than utilizing their natural gifts. Anything that resembles offensive flow is sacrificed in the name of caution, drawing further ire from disgruntled fans. Ultimately, a deficit results that is too steep to overcome, even after the Leafs begin throwing caution to the wind.
Thursday’s game here offered a perfect case in point - exacerbated by the looming trade deadline (Leafs GM Brian Burke and assistant Dave Nonis were conspicuously absent) and the fact San Jose was coming off an embarrassing set-back in Columbus against the NHL’s 30th-place team. Tip-toeing along, politely and guardedly, the Leafs had directed a whopping eight shots at Antti Niemi by the midway point of the match.
The Sharks – truth be known – weren’t anything close to dynamic, but they did jump in front, 2-0, on a pair of nifty maneuvers by veteran Patrick Marleau – neither of which could be pinned on the Maple Leafs goalie-of-the-night: beleaguered James Reimer.
When the horn sounded to end the middle frame, Leafs had still left almost all of their energy in the warm-up, 90 minutes before.
JAMES REIMER WAS RARELY HARRASSED IN THIS GAME; HIS TEAMMATES RESPONDED WELL TO THE FEW OCCASIONS SAN JOSE MADE LIFE DIFFICULT AROUND THE CREASE.
It wasn’t until Mike Brown picked a fight with Jim Vandermeer early in the third period that the home team registered a pulse. Just more than a minute after the scrap, rookie Jake Gardiner’s shot from the left point eluded Niemi and Leafs carried the play from that point. Had they not been so jittery and tentative in the opening 40 minutes, the result may have been different.
Then again, we’ve seen this pattern before… many, many times.
Enjoy, now, my photo review of Leafs and Sharks from the ACC:
PERHAPS GETTING AN EARLY START ON HIS PLAYOFF BEARD, JOE THORNTON STRUCK A COUPLE OF DIFFERENT POSES (ABOVE) DURING THE PRE-GAME WARM-UP, WHILE TEAMMATE ANDREW DESJARDINS KEPT AN EYE ON GOALIE ANTTI NIEMI.
JUST AFTER 7 P.M., REFEREE DAVE JACKSON DROPPED THE PUCK AT CENTRE-ICE BETWEEN THORNTON AND THE LEAFS MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI, WHO STANDS A DECENT CHANCE OF BEING TRADED BEFORE MONDAY’S NHL DEADLINE.
IT WAS A GRINDING AFFAIR IN THE FIRST 40 MINUTES, WITH FEW SCORING CHANCES AND LOTS OF SPADE-WORK ALONG THE BOARDS, AS EVIDENCED BY THE PHOTO-COLLAGE ABOVE.
LEAFS FORWARD CLARKE MacARTHUR LOST AN EDGE AND TUMBLED RATHER VIOLENTLY INTO NIEMI IN THE FIRST PERIOD (ABOVE), TAKING A MOMENT TO REGAIN HIS WITS BEFORE GETTING UP (BELOW).
BENT AT THE WAIST BETWEEN LINESMAN STEVE MILLER, TYLER BOZAK AND MICHAL HANDZUS APPEARED ROUGHLY THE SAME SIZE. WERE THEY STANDING ERECT, THE PICTURE WOULD BE FAR DIFFERENT.
REIMER MADE A COUPLE OF BIG SAVES LATE IN THE OPENING FRAME – HOLDING HIS GROUND WITH THORNTON AND MARLEAU UNCOMFORTABLY CLOSE (ABOVE). THE LESS-THAN-ENTHRALLING PERIOD ENDED (BELOW) WITH JUST 12 COMBINED SHOTS.
LEAFS GM BRIAN BURKE WAS NOWHERE TO BE SEEN AT THE ACC FOUR DAYS BEFORE THE NHL TRADE DEADLINE – HIS EXECUTIVE BOOTH OCCUPIED (ABOVE) BY LIEUTENANTS DAVE POULIN, CLIFF FLETCHER AND CLAUDE LOISELLE.
THE PUCK IS JUST BENEATH THE CROSSBAR (ABOVE) AS MARLEAU’S BLAZING SHOT BEATS REIMER 32 SECONDS INTO THE MIDDLE PERIOD, GIVING THE VISITORS A 1-0 LEAD. REIMER SWEEPS THE PUCK OUT OF HIS NET (BELOW) AND THEN REFRESHES AT THE TORONTO BENCH DURING A TELEVISION BREAK.
UNTIL EARLY IN THE THIRD PERIOD, THESE WERE THE ONLY BLUE UNIFORMS ANTTI NIEMI HAD TO CONTEND WITH.
LEAFS SPENT PRECIOUS LITTLE TIME IN THE VICINITY OF THE SAN JOSE NET DURING THE FIRST HALF OF THE GAME – THEIR PUNY SHOT TOTAL (ABOVE-RIGHT) REFLECTIVE AT 10 MINUTES OF THE SECOND PERIOD.
MARLEAU POSITIONED HIMSELF (ABOVE) TO DEFLECT IN LOGAN COUTURE’S POINT-SHOT ON THE POWERPLAY AT 10:43 OF THE MIDDLE FRAME, PROVIDING THE VISITORS ALL THE OFFENSE THEY WOULD NEED ON THIS NIGHT.
EVERYONE WAS BUSY DURING THIS TV TIME-OUT (ABOVE): REIMER TOWELED OFF AT THE BENCH; LINESMEN BRIAN MURPHY AND STEVE MILLER WATCHED SOMETHING IN THE LEAFS’ END WITH ARMS FOLDED; TSN RINK-SIDE ANALYST RAY FERRARO CHECKED HIS MOBILE DEVICE BETWEEN THE BENCHES; DION PHANEUF TOOK IN THE DOG-AND-PONY SHOW ON THE ACC VIDEO-BOARD WHILE CODY FRANSON ADJUSTED HIS LEFT SLEEVE.
MacARTHUR WAS A PRESENCE MOST OF THE NIGHT – HIS FIRST-PERIOD “VISIT” TO NIEMI NOT PREVENTING HIM FROM HOUNDING THE SHARKS’ GOALIE.
EXPRESSIONS AT THE LEAFS BENCH DIDN’T CHANGE A WHOLE LOT DURING THE NIGHT.
DIE-HARDS ARE STICKING BY THEIR LEAFS – SLUMP OR NO SLUMP.
THE SHARKS’ RADIO-BROADCAST TANDEM OF DAN RUSANOWSKY (RIGHT) AND EX-LEAF CENTRE JAMIE BAKER. RUSANOWSKY HAS CALLED SHARKS GAMES SINCE THE FRANCHISE INCEPTION IN 1991-92. BAKER WAS ACQUIRED BY THE LEAFS FROM SAN JOSE FOR DEFENSEMAN TODD GILL ON JUNE 14, 1996. HE PLAYED IN 71 GAMES OVER TWO SEASONS, SCORING EIGHT GOALS.
BIG NEWS IN THE SECOND INTERMISSION WAS THE JEFF CARTER-JACK JOHNSON TRADE BETWEEN COLUMBUS AND LOS ANGELES, AS DISCUSSED BY THE TSN PANEL OF MARC CRAWFORD (ABOVE-LEFT) AND BOB McKENZIE (RIGHT, BEING WATCHED BY LEAFS SENIOR ADVISOR CLIFF FLETCHER).
THORNTON AND GRABOVSKI ARE AT IT AGAIN, THIS TIME TO START THE THIRD PERIOD.
LEAFS FINALLY CAME TO LIFE EARLY IN THE THIRD, WHEN MIKE BROWN DROPPED THE GLOVES (ABOVE AND BELOW) WITH SHARKS DEFENSEMAN JIM VANDERMEER.
NIEMI STRAINS TO LOOK PAST TEAMMATE MARC-EDOUARD VLASIC AND LEAFS JOFFREY LUPUL (ABOVE) AS JAKE GARDINER WINDS UP FROM THE RIGHT POINT. SECONDS AFTER THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN, GARDINER SCORED TORONTO’S ONLY GOAL; THE ROOKIE DEFENSEMAN THEN WATCHED PLAY NEXT TO CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF (BELOW).
NIEMI SEEMED RATHER NONCHALANT IN HIS CREASE LATER IN THE FINAL FRAME, EVEN WITH MacARTHUR CLOSE BY ONCE AGAIN.
CALM AND BUSINESS-LIKE, AS HE WAS WHILE SCORING 408 NHL GOALS FROM 1984 TO 2002, RAY FERRARO OF TSN WATCHED PLAY FROM BETWEEN THE BENCHES ON THURSDAY (ABOVE), WHILE GORD MILLER CALLED THE ACTION UPSTAIRS.
THOUGH LEAFS ARE STRUGGLING RIGHT NOW, THERE’S A CONSTANT REMINDER – AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE - OF BETTER DAYS (ABOVE AND BELOW).
WITH LEAFS BUZZING AROUND AND THREATENING TO TIE THE GAME, SAN JOSE COACH TODD McLELLAN CALLED TIME-OUT MIDWAY THROUGH THE FINAL PERIOD AND BLATANTLY IMPLORED HIS CHARGES TO PICK IT UP. COUNTERPART RON WILSON, MEANWHILE, HAD SOMETHING TO SAY (BELOW) TO ASSISTANT SCOTT GORDON.
LUPUL DID HIS BEST TO SCREEN NIEMI LATE IN THE GAME (ABOVE), DRAWING A REACTION FROM VETERAN DEFENSEMAN COLIN WHITE (5) OF THE SHARKS.
REIMER MADE TWO TRIPS TO THE LEAFS BENCH FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER – THE FIRST (ABOVE) WITH 89 SECONDS LEFT IN REGULATION. PHIL KESSEL AND TYLER BOZAK FOUGHT HARD BEHIND THE SAN JOSE NET (BELOW) WITH VLASIC, BRENT BURNS (88) AND JOE PAVELSKI (8) BUT COULD NOT GENERATE A GOOD SCORING CHANCE.
REIMER SPRINTED TO THE BENCH AGAIN AT 18:51 (ABOVE-LEFT), BUT TIME EVENTUALLY RAN OUT ON THE LEAFS – NOW 1-6-1 IN THEIR PAST EIGHT GAMES AND NINTH IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE. TEAM REACTIONS (BELOW) WERE AS EXPECTED.
NEARING THE END OF A MASSIVE NINE-GAME, 16-DAY ROAD TRIP, THE SHARKS PACKED UP FOR A DATE IN NASHVILLE SATURDAY NIGHT, WHILE THE GAME’S NUMBER-ONE STAR, PATRICK MARLEAU, SPOKE TO THE TV AUDIENCE BACK HOME.
LEAFS ARE HEADING DOWNWARD – QUICKLY – AND MUST PUT A HALT TO THE RIDE.
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