By HOWARD BERGER
TAMPA (Nov. 21) – During an up-and-down first quarter of the season, the Maple Leafs have been party to the unforeseen. Paramount among that has been the absence, since Oct. 22, of starting goalie James Reimer – and who would have predicted the Leafs to be three games above .500 without him, given that no established substitute is in the fold? On the flip side, young Ben Scrivens has become a bit of a revelation, considering his ranking as No. 1 goalie with the AHL Toronto Marlies when the season began. Jonas Gustavsson is still in goaltending purgatory, but just when so many of us were poised to write him off for good, he played very well amid an avalanche of support in Saturday night’s 7-1 romp over Washington.
Just where the Leafs go from here is anyone’s guess. A number of the tendencies we’ve seen in the non-playoff teams of the post-lockout NHL are in evidence once again… a] yielding more goals than goals scored (69-63); b] sub-par penalty killing (27th in NHL at 76.2%); c] reviving struggling opponents (Carolina was on an eight-game tailspin before the Leafs arrived in Raleigh on Sunday; Ottawa had earlier broken a long winless drought while facing the Blue & White).
Conversely, this Leafs team has more youth, speed and offensive flair than any in the post-lockout era. If the Hart Trophy were awarded at the quarter-pole, Phil Kessel would at least be among the finalists; quite possibly the winner, leading the NHL in goals (16, four ahead of James Neal PIT and Milan Michalek OTT) and points (29, three ahead of Claude Giroux PHI and four up on line-mate Joffrey Lupul).
The latter – a salary-dump by Anaheim in the Francois Beauchemin–Jake Gardiner trade of last February – has been terrific alongside Kessel: Lupul’s 10 goals tie him for 10th in the NHL with Johan Franzen DET, Jonathan Toews CHI and Jordan Staal PIT.
This augurs very well for the Maple Leafs… if the club regains stability in goal, something it flourished amid in the final third of last season. Such benefit would not have been expected in Reimer’s absence; nor has it materialized. The presence of a veteran back-up may have been helpful, but would not have guaranteed stability without Reimer. Should the Leafs No. 1 netminder return healthy in the near-future [meaning an ability to stay in the line-up without a flare of concussion symptoms], he’ll be fresher than most of his colleagues in the NHL and that could play an invaluable role in the second half of the schedule. Also mandatory for a sustained playoff push is the presence of forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong – all of whom are currently sidelined. That Toronto has remained above the water-line without Reimer and the aforementioned trio is a credit to the club.
After arriving close to midnight from their game in Raleigh, the Leaf players were given the complete day off today here in Tampa. Around 1 p.m., several came down to the lobby of the team hotel and met with the usual pack of Toronto media. With apologies to those who may be shivering up north, I present to you my photos from here on the Gulf coast of Florida:
MAPLE LEAFS FORWARD TIM CONNOLLY DID THE MEDIA THING (ABOVE) AND THEN TRIED TO SUMMON THE ATTENTION OF BLACKBERRY-WIELDING TEAMMATE LUKE SCHENN (BELOW).
THE OPULENCE OF A HOTEL LOBBY HERE IN TAMPA (ABOVE).
JOFFREY LUPUL BEGAN HIS SESSION WITH REPORTERS (ABOVE) AND THEN CHUCKLED WHEN ASKED TO REMOVE HIS STEREO HEADPHONES (BELOW), AS A SOUND WAS INTERFERING WITH THE TV CAMERAS RECORDING THE SCRUM.
LEAFS DEFENSEMAN CARL GUNNARSSON (ABOVE) IS ALWAYS COOPERATIVE, LIGHT AND FRIENDLY AROUND REPORTERS… A TERRIFIC GUY.
CREDIT TYLER BOZAK (ABOVE) FOR DOING HIS BEST AMID TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES IN THE “MOVEMBER” DRIVE FOR PROSTATE CANCER AWARENESS.
WONDERFUL VIEW (ABOVE) OF DOWNTOWN TAMPA FROM AN AIR CANADA AIRBUS-321 ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON. LARGE WHITE STRUCTURE AT LEFT IS THE ST. PETE TIMES FORUM, HOME OF THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING. ABOVE ARENA IN PHOTO IS THE FLAT-TOPPED TAMPA CONVENTION CENTER WHILE THE CHANNELSIDE DISTRICT AND CRUISE-SHIP DEPARTURE TERMINAL ARE AT BOTTOM.
CLOSER LOOK (ABOVE) AT THE ARENA AND CONVENTION CENTER, WITH TWO ADJACENT HOTELS: TAMPA MARRIOTT WATERSIDE ON THE LEFT AND EMBASSY SUITES ON THE RIGHT.
MOTOR-BOATS CIRCLE A SMALL ISLAND IN SOUTH TAMPA-BAY (ABOVE) AS AIR CANADA JET TURNS RIGHT FOR APPROACH TO TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
ON FINAL APPROACH (ABOVE) WE PASS MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, LOCATED JUST SOUTH OF DOWNTOWN TAMPA.
FROM HOTEL WINDOW (ABOVE), THE ST. PETE TIMES FORUM AND A CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES SHIP, WHICH DEPARTS (BELOW) MOMENTS LATER.
DOWNTOWN TAMPA (ABOVE) FROM STREET LEVEL, INCLUDING THE 42-STOREY 100 NORTH TAMPA BUILDING (LEFT, TALLEST STRUCTURE ON THE GULF COAST OF FLORIDA), AND THE 36-STOREY SUNTRUST FINANCIAL CENTER (CLOSER VIEW BELOW). BOTH OPENED IN 1992.
YES… WE ARE IN FLORIDA.