December 19, 2007

A Rally in Raleigh

The Toronto Maple Leafs were up to their old tricks last night in Raleigh. Up 2-0 with a minute and a half left in the game the Leafs once again imploded, in fine fashion I might add. Chalk up another overtime loss for the boys in blue and white.

Ah, the dreaded 2-0 lead. The worst lead in hockey, so they say. Whoever "they" are, the Leafs are proving them right. Toronto just couldn't hold on, even when it seemed like they were going to ice the game with an empty-net goal with 30 seconds left on the clock.

The Leafs have played a lot better with the lead, especially the 2-0 margin, since the start of December, but it wasn't to be last night. They had 58 excellent minutes of hockey in the bag, and I had already penciled in a win thanks to another textbook display of great goaltending by my new favourite goalie Vesa Toskala.

Unfortunately, Toskala can't do everything out there. Like score on an empty net. The goat horns were being worn by one Alexei Ponikarovsky last night, that's for sure. I've got a soft spot for Poni, but boy did he pick the worst time to have a brain cramp. At the Carolina blue line with 30 seconds to go Poni could have attempted to fire the puck at the empty net. He could have dumped the puck deep into the Hurricanes zone. Or he could have fed Mats Sundin, who was open on his left wing. Instead, Poni did nothing. He had his pocket picked from behind by Cory Stillman, the Hurricanes went the other way, and before I could yell "what the f**k!?", the game was tied.

Poni's misery, and mine, didn't end there. He took a penalty in overtime and was in the sin bin, along with Nik Antropov, when the Hurricanes bagged the winner on the power play.

The Leafs lost this game for three reasons:

a) Poni, God bless his heart, fucked up;
2) The Leafs' defense was dog-tired by the end of the game because they were, essentially, a five-man unit all night long;
d) The officiating was, as usual, bogus.

Poni made a mistake. I'm over it. I suggest you do the same. He's an important piece of this Leafs team and I have no doubt he'll make up for his gaffe on the rest of the road trip.

As I predicted in my previous post, Toronto called up Anton Stralman to replace the injured Bryan McCabe. The logical choice would have been, in my opinion, Derrick Walser, but he's got contractual issues, as I assumed. Thanks to David Shoalts at the Globe for letting me know that Walser, if called up from the farm, would have to clear waivers on his way back down to the Marlies.

I still think Walser should have been recalled, and I honestly don't give a damn about his contract situation. You want to know why? Because Stralman played less than five minutes last night. Someone, anyone, please explain to me the rationale behind recalling a player from the Toronto Marlies whom the coaching staff has absolutely no confidence in sending out on the ice. What's the point? This is clearly the case with Stralman, who I don't think played one shift in the third period of last night's game. Maurice and company have no confidence in the kid, and they're totally messing with his head by sending out Andy Wozniewski for a regular shift while Stralman sits and watches. It is incredibly infuriating. If this is the solution while McCabe is out - to play Stralman less than five minutes a night - the Leafs are in a world of trouble.

Stralman's ass on the bench effects the rest of the defensive unit. Pavel Kubina was about to pass out by the end of the game. His legs were seemingly on fire. The gas tank was empty. Use whatever analogy you want, but he needed a breather. The Leafs, however, couldn't afford him one. On some nights in the NHL, teams dress seven defenceman. Last night Toronto played with five.

I hate to bitch and moan about the officiating, but it was brutal last night. It seems like it's always Toronto versus not only the opposition, but also the referees. The penalty calls against the Leafs in overtime had me throwing stuff against the wall. Ponikarovksy was called for tripping literally five seconds after he was dumped in front of the Carolina net. While Antropov's penalty, to make it a five-on-three advantage for Carolina in the extra session, was justified, Eric Staal should have been called for holding on Mats Sundin while the Leafs were killing off the penalty. The winning goal by Scott Walker came on Carolina's second five-on-three advantage of the game. Now I know the Leafs have discipline issues, but they deserved a better fate from the stripes last night.

As tough a loss as it was to swallow - blowing a 2-0 lead with less than two minutes to play broke my heart (and had me reaching for the bottle) - I've got to show the Leafs some love. They did play a strong game, and hell, I'll take the point. It should have been two points, but it's better to leave Raleigh with something rather than nothing. Although in the long run, I know it's games like these that really come back to bite you in April. The Leafs, as we all know so well, missed the playoffs by a point last season. One point. One measly point, like the one they gift-wrapped for the Hurricanes last night. Merry Fucking Christmas.


The penalty killers were on point last night, especially Kubina and Hal Gill. Kubina's still finding his legs after missing 10 games in November and early December, but he was a horse last night, logging a shade under 33 minutes of ice time. Gill played 29 minutes and is the leader of the PK unit, which shut down the potent Hurricanes power play until the overtime session.

I really appreciate what Gill brings to this Leafs team. A lot of people in this town love to hate Hal Gill, for reasons I will never quite understand. He led the Leafs in plus/minus last year, and is once again having a quiet but sound season. He's a defensive specialist who plays the man and plays hard every night, but this year he's even become somewhat of an offensive juggernaut, with a goal and 13 assists to his name (that's, umm, more points than McCabe!). Gill always makes the smart, safe play and keeps his game simple. It's the little things that Gill does that impress me the most. If he's got the puck at the blue line in the offensive zone, he'll never try and shoot it past a bunch of bodies and towards the net. He'll always send it back around the boards to the goal line, and I dig that. And you've got to love his reach. Can't beat the Hal Gill six-foot-seven reach. If you don't like Hal Gill and don't appreciate what he does, you don't know a damn thing.

Toskala also deserves a shout out, because he was phenomenal last night, especially in the first period. He made a number of fantastic saves early on to weather the storm (hurricane?) and has continued to provide stellar goaltending to a Leafs team that clearly needs it. I thought for a few moments in the third period that he'd be leaving North Carolina with a shutout and first-star honours. I guess not. But I've got still mad love for my man Vesa. He's the real deal between the pipes.

A tough loss is in the books and the Leafs continue their trek south to Florida for games against the Lightning and Panthers on Thursday and Saturday. They've got three out of a possible six points on the road trip so far - .500 hockey. I'll take it.

My only wish? Get well soon Carlo Colaiacovo. We're desperate over here, man...