By HOWARD BERGER
SUNRISE, Fla. (Dec. 28) – Though the Maple Leafs have done a good job of remaining in Eastern Conference playoff territory through nearly half the 2011-12 season, the club could be on the outside for a seventh consecutive spring if it doesn’t embark on a points streak… and soon. Leafs are still riding their 4-0-1 leap from the gate on home ice in October. Since then, the team has played .500 hockey: a 5-3 loss Tuesday night to the Florida Panthers lowering Toronto’s record to 14-14-3 since Oct. 19. If the Leafs cannot largely improve on that pace in the final half of the schedule, the Stanley Cup tournament will be nothing but a dream.
In order to fashion such a streak, the club will need – above all else – stronger goaltending than it has received to this point. James Reimer was completely out of sync at the BankAtlantic Center here in his shakiest performance since returning from a six-week injury layoff. Reimer allowed three goals on seven shots – all of which he would normally handle – and was yanked by coach Ron Wilson at 4:13 of the second period after Jason Garrison gave the Panthers a 3-1 lead. “Just a tough game,” Reimer said afterward. “Look at that second goal [by Bill Thomas] – the guy missed the shot and it went in. On the other two, I have to battle harder to see the puck through traffic. You allow a game like this to sting for awhile but you don’t dwell on it.”
Reimer; the Leafs and their fans would rather dwell on the sort of momentum the rookie goaltender provided in the final half of last season, when his sudden development in the NHL enabled the club to nearly erase a 14-point playoff deficit. He provided assurance lacking between the pipes since Ed Belfour’s brief tenure in the pre-lockout era and the Leafs appeared set at the key position heading into the current campaign. Though second-year players traditionally encounter a challenge, Reimer’s season was thrown amok when Brian Gionta of the Canadiens violently jolted his neck in a goal-mouth collision at Montreal, Oct. 22.
The ensuing absence of 42 days while recovering from concussion symptoms provided the Leafs a large dose of instability that hasn’t yet been resolved. If the Reimer of last season isn’t able to emerge in the foreseeable future, the club’s playoff hopes will diminish.
With Winnipeg defeating Colorado on Tuesday night and Ottawa getting blasted at home by Montreal, the Leafs maintained their tenuous grip on sixth place in the Eastern Conference – a mere point up on New Jersey, the Jets and the Senators. Leafs chartered up to Raleigh immediately after the loss here and will resume their four-game road trip against the Carolina Hurricanes – 14th in the Conference – Thursday night at the RBC Center.
And now, my photo-review of the game here in Sunrise, Fla.
AFTER A COUPLE OF BRILLIANTLY SUNNY DAYS, THE SKY ABOVE THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER LOOKED RATHER THREATENING LATE TUESDAY AFTERNOON.
THE FLORIDA PLAYERS WARM UP (ABOVE) AS THE SELL-OUT CROWD FILES IN – MANY PEOPLE ADORNED IN MAPLE LEAFS GARB.
STILL NOT SURE IF ANTHEM SINGER ERIN BOYLE (ABOVE) WALKED OUT PAINTED IN RED, OR WAS WEARING A DRESS. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
LEAFS’ PHIL KESSEL IS HOUNDED BY MIKE WEAVER OF FLORIDA EARLY IN THE GAME.
DURING A POWERPLAY IN THE FIRST PERIOD, NAZEM KADRI WAS ROUGHED UP BY PANTHERS’ VETERAN ED JOVANOVSKI AND CHOSE TO PUSH BACK (ABOVE).
A WIDE TERRITORIAL EDGE FOR THE VISITORS IN THE OPENING PERIOD YIELDED NOTHING, AS DEFENSEMAN ERIK GUDBRANSON OF FLORIDA SCORED THE ONLY GOAL.
WHEN REFEREE JUSTIN ST. PIERRE DROPPED THE PUCK BETWEEN TYLER BOZAK AND MIKE SANTORELLI TO BEGIN THE SECOND PERIOD, THE LEAFS HAD NO IDEA THE ROOF WOULD SOON BE CAVING IN.
VIEW (ABOVE) FROM MY PERCH IN THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER PRESS BOX.
CIRCUMSTANCES APPEARED TO BE BRIGHTENING FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS WHEN MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI SCORED (ABOVE) AT 2:11 OF THE SECOND PERIOD, KNOTTING THE MATCH 1-1. IT WAS, HOWEVER, A MIRAGE OF IMMENSE PROPORTION.
JUST 19 SECONDS AFTER GRABOVSKI’S GOAL, BILL THOMAS OF FLORIDA RACED IN ON A BREAKAWAY AND ESSENTIALLY FANNED ON HIS SHOT. BUT, IT SLID PAST THE LEFT PAD OF JAMES REIMER. WHEN JASON GARRISON BEAT A SCREENED REIMER FROM INSIDE THE LEFT POINT AT 4:13 (BELOW), THE NIGHT ENDED FOR THE LEAFS’ GOALIE.
THE LEAFS DIDN’T EXACTLY PROVIDE BACK-UP JONAS GUSTAVSSON A COMFORTABLE SITUATION FOR HIS ARRIVAL: WITH GRABOVSKI ALREADY OFF FOR SLASHING, THE CLUB WAS HANDED A BENCH MINOR FOR TOO MANY MEN – A CALL RON WILSON DESCRIBED AS “CHEESY” AFTERWARD. BUT, FLORIDA CAPITALIZED ON THE LONG 5-on-3 POWERPLAY WHEN EX-LEAF KRIS VERSTEEG (BELOW) ENDED A THREE-GOAL ERUPTION IN 3:25.
THE HOLIDAY CROWD OF MORE THAN 20,000 AT THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER WAS LARGELY INFLATED BY SNOWBIRDS FROM UP NORTH, AS IS EVIDENT IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY OF THE VISITORS’ BENCH (ABOVE).
INTERMISSION CHATTER PREVAILED IN THE PRESS BOX. FLORIDA GM DALE TALLON (ABOVE LEFT) CONVERSED WITH LEAFS EXECUTIVE RICK DUDLEY (CENTER).
THE MAN IN THE BOW-TIE (ABOVE) IS ONE OF THE LEGENDARY GM’s IN THE NHL: BILL TORREY, ARCHITECT OF THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS’ STANLEY CUP DYNASTY IN THE EARLY-1980s. UNDER TORREY’S WATCH, THE ISLANDERS DRAFTED SUCH FUTURE HALL-OF-FAMERS AS DENIS POTVIN, BRYAN TROTTIER, MIKE BOSSY AND CLARKE GILLIES; THE CLUB WON FOUR CONSECUTIVE CHAMPIONSHIPS BEGINNING IN ’80. TORREY WAS ALSO THE FIRST GM OF THE FLORIDA PANTHERS IN 1993 – A BANNER (BELOW) HONORING THAT APPOINTMENT HANGS ABOVE ONE END OF THE BANKATLANTIC CENTER.
GRABOVSKI SCORED HIS SECOND GOAL OF THE NIGHT ON A POWERPLAY MIDWAY THROUGH THE THIRD PERIOD (ABOVE) AND THE LEAFS SUDDENLY TRAILED, 4-3. STRAIN IS PALPABLE ON THE VISITORS’ BENCH (BELOW) WHILE THE NHL “WAR ROOM” IN TORONTO REVIEWS THE PLAY TO DETERMINE WHETHER GRABOVSKI DELIBERATELY KICKED THE PUCK PAST GOALIE JOSE THEODORE. THE CALL ON THE ICE STOOD.
LEAFS WERE ABLE TO KEEP IT A ONE-GOAL GAME (ABOVE) FOR JUST 2:27 BEFORE TOMAS FLEISCHMANN SALTED THE VICTORY FOR FLORIDA.
RON WILSON PULLED GUSTAVSSON FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER (ABOVE) WITH MORE THAN 90 SECONDS REMAINING, BUT THE LEAFS NEVER THREATENED TO SCORE AND FLORIDA CELEBRATED ITS 19th VICTORY OF THE SEASON (BELOW) AT THE FINAL BUZZER. THE PANTHERS HAVE ONLY THREE REGULATION-TIME LOSSES IN 18 HOME GAMES THUS FAR.
FLORIDA PLAYERS LEAVE THE ICE (ABOVE) AFTER SALUTING THE CROWD. MEANWHILE, SOMETHING TELLS ME I WON’T BE LOOKING AT THE IMAGE BELOW WHEN I WALK OUT OF THE MTS CENTRE IN WINNIPEG ON SATURDAY NIGHT.