March 13, 2007

The Comeback Kids

An article in the Toronto Star by Damien Cox today called out Mats Sundin to step up and lead the Maple Leafs to the playoffs. Sundin went into tonight's tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning with only one goal, and a bunch of goal posts, in his last seven games. Cox singled out Sundin as the MVP of the Leafs, and the driver of the bus. He said the Leafs' playoff aspirations sit on the broad shoulders of the Captain.

I can't really argue with that.

I know every athlete in Toronto says they don't read the paper, but it sure seemed like Sundin found his way to the sports section of the Star today. He was a force on the ice tonight and led the Leafs to a 3-2 victory over a Tampa Bay squad that looked every bit like a team finishing up a six game road trip.

I went into tonight's game still reeling from Saturday's thrilling come from behind victory over those fun-loving Ottawa Senators. On a side note, it looks like the Sens have the same third period disease the Leafs have suffered from this season. They've been blowing leads left, right and centre recently. It's been fun to watch.

What a comeback by the Leafs Saturday night. They dominated the Senators in all facets of the game and just never quit, even after what seemed like a back-breaking goal by Dany Heatley to close out the second period. Boyd Devereaux and Nik Antropov scored clutch goals in the third period and who better than Darcy Tucker to finish the game in overtime? He loves to score goals and when they're in overtime, against the Senators, it's hard not to go buck wild.

I was up at the cottage Saturday night, and was without a cable connection. I set up shop with a radio and AM 640 and it was sheer euphoria when I heard Joe Bowen call Tucker's overtime winning goal. Another improbable comeback, and another two huge points in the standings.

Tucker's been back for four games, including tonight vs Tampa, and he's got two goals and an assist. Both his goals have been game-winners. He was missed.

Tonight against Tampa Bay the Leafs came out strong once again, but fell behind by scores of 1-0 and 2-1. But like it's been all season with this team, they simply refuse to quit. The Leafs battled back on goals by Chad Kilger, on a great pass by Kyle Wellwood, and Mats Sundin.

Kilger's goal was all about the pass from Wellwood. It was a beautiful saucer pass in tight quarters. Wellwood is the true definition of a playmaker. He makes plays. He's called the Little Magician for a reason because everytime he's on the ice he makes something happen. This guy is just ready to blossom into a bonafide star in the NHL. He's got so much talent and it's great to see him back in the lineup. He really adds another dimension of much-needed skill to this team.

Sundin's goal was all about persistence and dogged determination. He had the puck behind the net, deked out Ponikarovsky, two Tampa defenders and then put it low glove side on Denis. It was a huge goal that tied up the match heading into the third. Sundin was a force on Saturday night, firing 11 shots on Ray Emery, and was dominant again tonight. He really took the team on his back tonight. When the Leafs see their Captain skating so hard and driving to the net with such determination, it's tough not to follow in his footsteps. The goal leaves Sundin only one behind Darryl Sittler for most goals by a Maple Leaf all time. Yet there's still people in Toronto who question this man's toughness and leadership. These people clearly are on crack. Cocaine, it's a helluva drug!

I've got to shoutout my man Nik Antropov. He tied up the hockey game Saturday night against the Sens and got the game winner tonight. He's been clutch to say the least. This guy is finally healthy - touch wood (no seriously, if you're reading this please touch some wood, for Antropov's, and my, sake) - and playing some of the best hockey of his career. He's using his body to shield the puck and going to the dirty areas of the offensive zone. I've said it before and I'll say it again, at $1 million a season Antropov is a ridiculous bargain. He'll be an unrestricted this summer and I definitely want to see Nikky back in a Leafs uniform next season.

I've also got to shout out Andrew Raycroft. It was a tough game for him because he barely saw any rubber in the first two periods. The Leafs were all over the Lightning through the first 40 minutes thanks to an incredibly aggressive and effective forecheck. But once the Leafs took the lead midway through the third it was all Tampa Bay. They came on strong and Raycroft stood tall, making a number of saves in order to assure the Leafs of victory. Lecavalier did hit the post with a minute left to play, but like a friend always used to say, the goalie's always only got to cover what he needs to. And it's about freakin time the Leafs caught a lucky break.

Speaking of Raycroft, Glenn Healy made an incredible comment on the broadcast tonight. Raycroft is only five wins away from setting a Leafs record for most wins in a season.

Go ahead, grab your jaw off the floor. I had to do the same.

Got it? Good. I know. It's hard to believe. But I guess that's what happens when he plays almost every game. At the end of the day, he's winning. That's all that matters.

Perreault, O'Neill and Steen all saw less than eight minutes of ice time tonight. Stajan, on the other hand, saw more than 15 minutes of ice time. I don't get it. I really don't. But it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters right now is the two points, and the Leafs got em.

It's tough not to look at the standings right now, especially with such an intense race for the final two playoff spots being waged. The Leafs sit in 9th place after their win tonight, and still control their own destiny. The standings don't matter because the Leafs just have to keep winning games. If they win, everything else will take care of itself.

The Leafs swept the season series with the Lightning this year, going 4-0. They came back from behind in each and every game.

It's a testament to the attitude of this team. They just never quit. Paul Maurice said it best, it's tough to not root for a team that simply refuses to give up, especially when the odds are stacked against them.

The Leafs have dealt with a ridiculous amount of injuries. They are near the top of the NHL in man-games lost to injury. All the other teams that have been dealt as many injuries as the Leafs are no where near the playoffs. Yet here we are, 70 games into the season, and the Leafs are in the thick of the race, one point behind Carolina for that 8th spot.

The Leafs have dealt with goaltending questions all year as well. The only consistent part of Raycroft's game is his inconsistency. I've been one of the many people who have been calling for Aubin to get more game action. But Maurice has done his best to quell a goaltending controversy. Razor is the number one guy and now I've bought into Maurice's faith. Raycroft is the guy, no matter how inconsistent he is, and I think he should play every game left from here on out.

The Leafs specialty teams have been atrocious. The penalty kill has been near the bottom all season, and that's not going to change. The Leafs can't kill penalties. There's no penalty killing switch the Leafs can turn on. They simply suck at it. The only solution is to stop taking penalties.

The power play was strong and effective to start the year but has gone into one helluva tailspin. Injuries have ruined the chemistry on the PP and the Leafs are now just average with the extra man. The power play used to be the strongest part of the Leafs' game! It's amazing how unproductive it has become.

On a related note, this Leafs team is markedly better 5 on 5 than it was last year. The team's 5 on 5 play was it's most glaring weakness last season, but John Ferguson Jr. rectified the problem this season. Yet he doesn't really get any credit for doing that, and I think that has something to do with the special teams being so poor. I guess it's one or the other for JFJ.

My point is with so many injuries and such weak special teams, how the hell are the Leafs still in this race? It comes down to passion and hard work. And that is what Paul Maurice is all about. This Leafs team is full of passion and pride. On many nights, passion can take a team just as far, if not farther, than talent alone. It's an extremely valuable asset to have, and this Leafs team has it in abundance.

By the way, how about the signing of Boyd Devereaux? JFJ deserves some serious props for that one. He's been a productive player at both ends of the rink.

I think the Leafs deserve some serious credit for still just being in this race. The win tonight simply keeps them in the race. They played with a lot of energy and passion tonight and they have no choice but to keep it up if they want to make the playoffs.

The Ottawa Senators, up 3-1 on the Leafs going into the third period Saturday night, had a chance to dig the nail into the coffin on the Leafs' season. But the Leafs refused to go silently into the night. They weren't going to have it. They battled, they fought, and they needed a few extra minutes, but they got to the two points.

That's all that matters.

Twelve games remain. That's 24 points still available. The Leafs control their own destiny. Weekend road dates with the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens await. They are games the Leafs should, and need to, win.

This team won't roll over and die, and I'm proud of em. They are resilient.

Paul Maurice is right - it is tough not to cheer for this team; a blue collar team that just refuses to throw in the towel. Sundin, Tucker and McCabe simply won't let this team fold. They will not go quietly into the night.

I, on the other hand, will.

Goodnight, Toronto...