By HOWARD BERGER
RALEIGH, N.C. (Dec. 30) – The first encounter between the Maple Leafs and Jets in Winnipeg since February 1996 looms as a dandy on Saturday night, as the Eastern Conference rivals are dead-even after 37 games. A stomach-churning overtime loss by the Leafs here in North Carolina on Thursday occurred roughly 90 minutes before Winnipeg crafted a 1-0 extra-period victory at home against Los Angeles. As a result, the Leafs and Jets are each 18-14-5 for 41 points; Winnipeg technically a spot ahead of eighth-place Toronto in the Conference. Should be quite the environment at the MTS Centre on New Year’s Eve.
The Leafs aren’t likely to be in a party mood heading into the match. You can be sure the club had a quiet charter flight up to Winnipeg after blowing a 3-1 lead midway through the third period and losing, 4-3, on Eric Staal’s powerplay goal in overtime – scored with Tim Connolly serving a tripping penalty. Goals by Nikolai Kulemin (his first in a 5-on-5 situation since Oct. 22 in Montreal, 31 games earlier) and Joffrey Lupul put the visitors ahead, 3-1, with 9:08 left in regulation. But, Carolina answered with consecutive markers by Staal and Zac Dalpe in a 2:02 span, re-knotting the count.
This was a ridiculous set-back for the Leafs, who aren’t doing much to justify Ron Wilson’s new contract status. Carolina has been dreadful this season – starting Thursday’s game 27th in the overall NHL standings. Yet, the ‘Canes have gobbled up five of six points against the Leafs, winning both encounters here at the RBC Center and riding a terrific performance by Ward into overtime at Toronto on Dec. 13. Connolly scored that night to provide the Leafs a much-deserved victory but there hasn’t been a lot else for fans of the Blue and White to cheer about in recent weeks.
Leafs have now dipped beneath .500 (14-15-3) since their much-ballyhooed 4-0-1 break from the gate; the club gradually trending southward after a 6-2 trouncing in Boston on Oct. 20. Wilson’s team simply cannot gag against opposition near the basement of the NHL and expect to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament in the spring.
The blown point here in Raleigh could easily come back to haunt the Leafs.
It was another busy night up in the press box – covering the Toronto-Carolina game for the National Post while snapping away with my Nikon camera:
IT WAS A COOL, CRISP NIGHT AS I MADE MY WAY TO THE PRESS ENTRANCE OF THE RBC CENTER (ABOVE) – THE MOON AND PLANET JUPITER SHINING BRILLIANTLY IN THE SKY.
VIEW FROM MY SEAT IN THE PRESS BOX JUST PRIOR TO GAME TIME (ABOVE), AND DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEMS (BELOW).
REFEREE DAN O’ROURKE GETS SET TO DROP THE PUCK BETWEEN TIM CONNOLLY OF THE LEAFS AND TUOMO RUUTU OF CAROLINA (ABOVE). FORMER LEAF ALEXEI PONIKAROVSKI CLEARLY FORGOT TO TIE UP SOMETHING NEAR HIS PANTS.
CREDIT HURRICANES’ RIGHT-WINGER ANTHONY STEWART (ABOVE) WITH SOME TEXT-BOOK SCREENING OF LEAFS’ GOALIE JAMES REIMER.
CAROLINA GOALIE CAM WARD EXCUSES HIMSELF FROM A DISCUSSION (ABOVE) AND STARES DOWN DARRYL BOYCE OF THE MAPLE LEAFS (BELOW).
NAZEM KADRI WHEELS AWAY AT CENTRE-ICE (ABOVE) ON THE RUSH THAT ULTIMATELY CONCLUDED WITH HIS WRAP-AROUND GOAL EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD (BELOW), TYING THE GAME, 1-1.
NIKOLAI KULEMIN (ABOVE) WAS MORE INVOLVED PHYSICALLY ON THIS NIGHT – STRATEGY THAT WOULD PAY OFF IN THE THIRD PERIOD.
ONE OF THE ALL-TIME BROADCASTING GREATS IN THE NHL – HURRICANES’ RADIO VOICE CHUCK KAITON (ABOVE AND BELOW) – CALLS THE ACTION THURSDAY NIGHT FROM HIS BOOTH IN THE RBC CENTER. KAITON HAS BEEN WITH THE FRANCHISE SINCE IT JOINED THE NHL AS THE HARTFORD WHALERS FOR THE 1979-80 SEASON, THREE YEARS BEFORE JOE BOWEN BEGAN CALLING LEAF GAMES. CHUCK IS AMONG THE JOLLIEST, KINDEST PEOPLE IN THE BUSINESS, AND A GREAT FRIEND.
SPEAKING OF JOE BOWEN, HERE HE IS (ABOVE) IN THE VISITING TELEVISION BOOTH DURING THE SECOND INTERMISSION THURSDAY, WATCHING GLUMLY ON TV AS HIS BELOVED FIGHTING IRISH OF NOTRE DAME WAS LOSING TO FLORIDA STATE IN THE CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL AT ORLANDO (THE SEMINOLES PREVAILED, 18-14).
LATER IN THE INTERMISSION, KAITON ENTERTAINS LEAFS’ TV ANALYST GREG MILLEN (CENTER) AND RADIO VOICE DAN DUNLEAVY (RIGHT) IN THE AREA BEHIND THE BROADCAST BOOTHS. DAN AND I WORKED TOGETHER FOR MANY YEARS AT THE FAN-590, INCLUDING A WONDERFUL STINT ON THE HOCKEY RADIO CREW AT THE 2010 WINTER OLYMPICS IN VANCOUVER.
JAMES REIMER MAKES A SAVE OFF A BACKHAND SHOT (ABOVE) BY JUSSI JOKINEN IN THE THIRD PERIOD OF THURSDAY NIGHT’S MATCH.
IT SEEMS LIKE MORE THAN JUST A GROUP-HUG (ABOVE), AS KULEMIN FINALLY SCORES HIS FIRST CONVENTIONAL GOAL IN 31 GAMES, GIVING LEAFS A 2-1 LEAD AT 6:36 OF THE THIRD PERIOD. A 30-GOAL SHOOTER LAST SEASON, KULEMIN BEAT RYAN MILLER ON A PENALTY SHOT IN BUFFALO, DEC. 16, BUT HAD NOT SCORED 5-on-5 SINCE THE LEAFS SEVENTH GAME OF THE SCHEDULE, OCT. 22, IN MONTREAL.
JOFFREY LUPUL SCORED MOMENTS AFTER KULEMIN TO PROVIDE LEAFS A 3-1 LEAD. BUT CAROLINA ANSWERED QUICKLY, WITH GOALS BY ERIC STAAL AND ZAC DALPE – THE LATTER BEING CONGRATULATED (ABOVE) BY TEAMMATES AFTER TYING THE GAME, 3-3, AT 11:50 OF THE THIRD. THAT’S HOW REGULATION ENDED AND THE TEAMS READIED FOR EXTRA TIME (BELOW).
THIS IS AN INTERESTING PHOTO, AS I SNAPPED MY SHUTTER AT THE EXACT MOMENT AN ARENA PHOTOGRAPHER PRESSED HIS, CONNECTED TO A STROBE-LIGHT IN THE RAFTERS.
AS ALWAYS, LUPUL TRIED TO CREATE SOMETHING (ABOVE) IN FRONT OF THE OPPOSITION NET – WARD AND EX-LEAF JAY HARRISON CONTENDING WITH HIM IN THE OVERTIME PERIOD. WHEN TIM CONNOLLY WENT OFF FOR TRIPPING (BELOW), YOU KNEW THE LEAFS WERE IN TROUBLE.
YET ANOTHER EX-LEAF – CAROLINA COACH KIRK MULLER – CALLED TIME OUT AFTER CONNOLY’S PENALTY AND MADE A STRONG POINT TO HIS PLAYERS (ABOVE), ONE OF WHOM WOULD REWARD HIM WITH THE OVERTIME WINNER.
NOT THE STEADIEST PHOTO EVER, BUT GOOD TIMING NONETHELESS AS ERIC STAAL’S QUICK SHOT WITH 1:51 REMAINING IN THE EXTRA PERIOD BULDGES THE TWINE IN BACK OF JAMES REIMER, ENDING THE HOCKEY GAME. STAAL IS MOBBED (BELOW), AS THE RBC CENTER CROWD CELEBRATES.