By HOWARD BERGER
BUFFALO (Dec. 17) – “The main problem is our penalty killers are taking the penalties.”
Leave it to Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson to summarize an issue in the fewest number of words. On this night; on yet another fruitless journey down the Queen Elizabeth Way, the visitors yielded three more goals while playing shorthanded and lost, 5-4, to the Buffalo Sabres. Sitting near the top of the overall NHL standings early in the season, the Leafs are now perilously close to sliding beneath the playoff bracket in the Eastern Conference – where they’ve been entrenched during the post-lockout era. They are tied for seventh (or eighth) with New Jersey, just one point ahead of ninth-place Ottawa and two up on Washington and Montreal. That’s what .500 hockey will get you, as the Leafs are exactly at the break-even mark (12-12-2) since their 4-0-1 bolt from the gate in October.
Penalty killing is the main issue… and where have we heard that before? Chatting with old pal Harry Neale of the Sabres television crew in the second intermission, I wondered about his coaching strategy in regard to playing shorthanded. “Just don’t take the damned penalties,” Harry quickly replied. I guess it’s easier said than done, or the Leafs would find a way to limit their excursions to the penalty box. When the captain of the hockey club – half-accidentally; half-carelessly – rams an opponent into the end-boards from behind and gets kicked out of a one-goal game late in the second period, you can see the writing on the wall.
Dion Phaneuf leaned into Zack Kassian a bit too ruggedly and was sent to an early shower at 17:01 of the middle frame. Less than three minutes earlier, Tyler Ennis had put the Sabres ahead for the first time (3-2) while another of Wilson’s P.K. guys – Philippe Dupuis – was off for high-sticking. With its five-minute man advantage (Phaneuf’s sentence for boarding), Buffalo extended the lead on a goal by Andrej Sekera exactly one minute after the Leafs’ captain left the ice. For all intents and purposes, it was lights out for the visitors at that point.
Nikolai Kulemin scored his first goal since Oct. 22 in the third period – requiring a penalty shot to break the interminable drought.
Oh yeah, the Leafs were dead-last in the NHL in penalty killing after Friday’s action, operating at a measly 73% efficiency.
My camera was working fine, however, here in Buffalo. Please enjoy this photo-review of the Leafs and Sabres at First Niagara Center:
LEAFS FANS (ABOVE) SWARMED ALL OVER THE SABRES’ HOME RINK ON FRIDAY NIGHT, AS IS CUSTOM WHEN TORONTO PLAYS AT BUFFALO. THE VISITORS FROM THE NORTH WENT HOME UNHAPPILY – ALSO A CUSTOM WHEN LEAVING AFTER A GAME HERE.
LEAFS AND SABRES WARM UP (ABOVE) AS THE SELL-OUT AUDIENCE FILES IN.
HE SINGS THE BEST NATIONAL ANTHEMS IN THE NHL… BAR NONE. DOUG ALLEN (ABOVE) COMES OUT; WAVES TO THE CROWD, AND GIVES IT THE GOODS: QUICKLY AND SUPERBLY. NO EXAGGERATED MELODY OR CONTRIVED LYRICS; JUST EXCEPTIONAL VOICE IN COLLABORATION WITH THE ARENA ORGANIST. I LOOK FORWARD TO IT EACH TIME I COME HERE.
AS HE SO OFTEN DOES, JOFFREY LUPUL TOOK UP RESIDENCE IN FRONT OF THE OPPOSITION NET (ABOVE) AND IT PAID OFF, SECONDS LATER, IN HIS 14th GOAL OF THE SEASON (BELOW), PROVIDING THE LEAFS A 1-0 EDGE AT 1:49 OF THE SECOND PERIOD.
LEGENDS IN THEIR OWN TIME: THE SABRES TELEVISION BROADCAST TANDEM OF RICK JEANNERET (LEFT) AND HARRY NEALE. JEANNERET HAS BEEN ON THE JOB SINCE THE SABRES SECOND NHL SEASON (1971-72) WHILE NEALE BECAME A HOUSEHOLD NAME NORTH OF THE BORDER DURING HIS MANY YEARS ALONGSIDE BOB COLE ON THE PRIME BROADCAST CREW OF HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA. HARRY LIVES IN THE BUFFALO SUBERB OF AMHERST, N.Y.
TIM CONNOLLY OF THE LEAFS FACES OFF AT CENTRE-ICE (ABOVE) AGAINST FORMER TEAMMATE, DEREK ROY, OF THE SABRES. CONNOLLY WAS BARELY NOTICEABLE IN HIS INITIAL RETURN TO THIS CITY.
THOMAS VANEK (JOSTLING ABOVE WITH LUKE SCHENN) WAS A PAIN-IN-THE-NECK ALL NIGHT LONG FOR THE LEAFS, SCORING HIS 15th AND 16th GOALS OF THE SEASON.
THE SEMINAL MOMENT OF FRIDAY NIGHT’S MATCH OCCURRED AT 17:01 OF THE SECOND PERIOD, WHEN LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF CRUNCHED ZACK KASSIAN OF BUFFALO INTO THE END-BOARDS BEHIND JAMES REIMER AND THEN APPEALED FRUITLESSLY (ABOVE) TO REFEREE MARC JOANNETTE. DION WAS HANDED A FIVE-MINUTE BOARDING PENALTY AND AUTOMATIC GAME-MISCONDUCT WITH TEAMMATE TYLER BOZAK ALREADY SERVING A HOLDING-THE-STICK MINOR.
BACK-UP GOALIE JONAS GUSTAVSSON POLITELY STEPS ASIDE (ABOVE) AS PHANEUF DEPARTS FOR THE EVENING. THE CAPTAIN HAD EARLIER SCORED HIS FOURTH GOAL OF THE SEASON.
BUFFALO’S POWERPLAY WAS DOMINANT IN THE MIDDLE FRAME AND REIMER FOUND HIMSELF REACHING FOR THE WATER-BOTTLE A COUPLE OF TIMES TOO MANY (BELOW).
AS ALWAYS WITH THE LEAFS IN TOWN, THE VISITING END OF PRESS ROW (ABOVE) WAS FILLED TO CAPACITY. HUNDREDS OF LEAF FANS WERE IN THE CORNER SEATS IN THIS PHOTO.
TIM CONNOLLY WINS A FACE-OFF FROM EX-TEAMMATE PAUL GAUSTAD (ABOVE) EARLY IN THE THIRD PERIOD, WITH THE STILL-FRESH ICE REFLECTING BRIGHT T.V. LIGHTS.
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN NEARLY TWO MONTHS, WE HEARD THE NAME “NIKOLAI KULEMIN” CALLED OUT BY AN ARENA PUBLIC-ADDRESS ANNOUNCER FOR SCORING A GOAL. KULEMIN CAME CLOSE (ABOVE) AND THEN WHEELED AWAY ON A PENALTY SHOT (BELOW) IN THE THIRD PERIOD. HE BEAT RYAN MILLER WITH A FOREHAND DEKE – HIS THIRD MARKER OF THE SEASON AND FIRST SINCE OCT. 22, IN MONTREAL.
LEAFS TURNED UP THE HEAT IN THE FINAL FRAME AND STAYED CLOSE TO BUFFALO. THE PUCK IS JUST INSIDE THE LEFT GOAL-POST (BELOW) AFTER BEING FIRED BY MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI THROUGH AN OBVIOUS SCREEN, PUTTING THE VISITORS BACK TO WITHIN ONE AT 5-4.
RON WILSON PULLED REIMER (ABOVE) IN THE FINAL MINUTE OF PLAY FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER AND THEN CALLED TIME OUT (BELOW) WITH 5.8 SECONDS REMAINING, AND A FACE-OFF COMING TO THE LEFT OF RYAN MILLER.
A SCRUM ENSUED AFTER THE PUCK WAS DROPPED IN THE DYING SECONDS AND THE LEAFS DID NOT THREATEN MILLER, WHO JUBILANTLY GREETS HIS TEAMMATES (ABOVE) AFTER THE FINAL HORN. WILSON SAID IT RIGHT AFTERWARD (BELOW) BY SUGGESTING HIS PENALTY KILLERS (PHANEUF, DUPUIS) CANNOT BE MARCHING TO THE BOX.
A SWARM OF MEDIA AWAITS MILLER’S POST-GAME APPEARANCE (ABOVE) IN THE SABRES’ SMARTLY-REMODELLED DRESSING ROOM.
THE WINNING GOALIE – ALWAYS AN INTERESTING SUBJECT – CHATS WITH REPORTERS.