Leafs Rescue Christmas

By HOWARD BERGER

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (Dec. 24) – As late as Monday, it appeared the eggnog would be sour in Leafs land. A shoot-out loss to the L.A. Kings at Air Canada Centre proved flattering to the home team, as the Leafs were decidedly outplayed everywhere but in goal. Toronto was in the midst of a December swoon, with a 2-5-2 record in its previous nine games. Hovering near the top of the NHL overall standings early in the season, the Leafs were barely hanging on to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Four nights later, all was forgotten.

Back-to-back victories over the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders sent Leafs into the Christmas break in a jolly good mood. It appeared the Islanders would be blown out of their own barn on Friday night, when the Leafs crafted a 2-0 lead before the match was five minutes old and made it 3-0 just past the midway mark of the opening period. But, the visitors had to scramble until the dying seconds of regulation at Nassau Coliseum to secure a 5-3 triumph and enter the break with a record of 18-13-4 for 40 points, good enough for sixth in the Conference… but barely. Ottawa and New Jersey lurk just a point behind the Blue and White.

It was a long day, traveling here from Toronto in mid-afternoon and then waiting an extra 45 minutes at LaGuardia Airport for a limo driver that forgot my reservation. Former Leafs winger Mike Johnson was on my flight, and chose not to wait with me. Who could blame him? Johnny was anxious to get to the hotel and prepare for his fourth game in as many nights as a color commentator on TSN. He worked here alongside Chris Cuthbert, having called Thursday night’s Montreal at Winnipeg match with Dennis Beyak. On Wednesday, he had been at the Habs game in Chicago and he started the mini-marathon with the Buffalo at Ottawa game on Tuesday.

Mike is ready for a few days of R & R at the cottage. I still remember covering his first game in the NHL: Toronto at Tampa Bay in March 1997.

As always, I had my trusty Nikon with me – capturing these images from a travel day and hockey night here on Long Island:

ON APPROACH TO NEW YORK (ABOVE), WE FLEW DIRECTLY OVER CENTRAL PARK IN THE HEART OF MANHATTAN AND TOUCHED DOWN AT LaGUARDIA JUST BEFORE 2 P.M. (BELOW) – ONE HOUR AND NINE MINUTES AFTER DEPARTING PEARSON AIRPORT.

NEW YORK-AREA TRAFFIC DOESN’T BREAK FOR THE HOLIDAYS. IT TOOK NEARLY AN HOUR TO GET TO THE HOTEL AND ARENA EXIT (ABOVE) IN UNIONDALE.

THE NASSAU VETERANS MEMORIAL COLISEUM (ABOVE) – SECOND-OLDEST ARENA IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE, OPENING IN OCTOBER 1972 WHEN THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS BEGAN THEIR INAUGURAL SEASON. ONLY MADISON SQUARE GARDEN IN NEIGHBORING MANHATTAN HAS BEEN AROUND LONGER… SINCE FEBRUARY 1968.

AMONG THE MOST CONVENIENT ARENA-HOTEL COMBINATIONS IN THE NHL IS THE NASSAU COLISEUM AND LONG ISLAND MARRIOTT (ABOVE) – SEPARATED BY A SIDEWALK.

FROM 10th FLOOR OF THE LONG ISLAND MARRIOTT (ABOVE) THE SUN SETS BEHIND NASSAU COLISEUM. FANS OF THE MAPLE LEAFS ARE AMONG THOSE AT THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE COLISEUM (BELOW), ONE HOUR BEFORE GAME TIME.

I PAID A PRE-GAME VISIT TO THE OFFICIALS’ DRESSING ROOM TO SAY HELLO TO MY PAL, VETERAN REFEREE DON VAN MASSENHOVEN (ABOVE LEFT), WHO CALLED THE LEAFS-ISLANDERS GAME WITH YOUNG PARTNER DAVID BANFIELD (RIGHT).

VAN MASSENHOVEN AND BANFIELD ARE JOINED (ABOVE) BY LINESMEN  DEREK AMELL (LEFT) AND JEAN MORIN (RIGHT). BASED ON THIS PHOTO, I’M THINKING JEAN AND BOBBY ORR MIGHT HAVE BEEN SEPARATED AT BIRTH.

YOU KNOW IT’S NOT A HOCKEY NIGHT IN THE NEW YORK-NEW JERSEY AREA UNTIL THE MAVEN – STAN FISCHLER – APPEARS ON THE PRESS BOX TV SCREEN (ABOVE).

DAVID BANFIELD IS MOMENTARILY DISTRACTED (ABOVE) BEFORE DROPPING THE PUCK AT CENTRE ICE BETWEEN MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI AND JOHN TAVARES.

THE LEAFS POUNCED ALL OVER THE ISLANDERS IN THE EARLY GOING AND BUILT A 2-0 LEAD BY THE 4:22 MARK ON GOALS BY CLARKE MacARTHUR (ABOVE) AND NAZEM KADRI, BEING MOBBED BY TEAMMATES BELOW.

LEAFS APPEARED CAPABLE OF BLOWING OUT THE ISLANDERS EARLY ON.

THE PRESS BOX AT NASSAU COLISEUM IS CLOSEST TO THE ICE OF ANY IN THE LEAGUE (ABOVE), BUT IS CRAMPED BEYOND DESCRIPTION.

PERHAPS ANTICIPATING AN EASY NIGHT AFTER BUILDING A 3-0 LEAD, LEAFS TOOK THEIR FOOT OFF THE GAS-PEDAL AND ALLOWED THE ISLANDERS TO CLAW BACK. KYLE OKPOSO IS SURROUNDED BY TEAMMATES (ABOVE) AFTER SCORING THE FIRST NEW YORK GOAL LATE IN THE OPENING PERIOD.

IT WAS DEFINITELY A GAME ONCE AGAIN WHEN FRANS NIELSEN (51) BEAT JAMES REIMER FROM CLOSE RANGE AT :40 OF THE MIDDLE PERIOD AND SKATED TRIUMPHANTLY TO THE BENCH (BELOW) WITH TEAMMATES AFTER THE POWERPLAY MARKER.

A COUPLE OF PLAYERS HIT THE DECK IN THE THIRD PERIOD: MATT MARTIN OF THE ISLANDERS WAS SLOW TO REGAIN HIS FEET (ABOVE) AFTER TAKING AN ELBOW TO THE CHOPS FROM LEAFS DEFENSEMAN KEITH AULIE. TORONTO’S TIM CONNOLLY THEN RECEIVED SOME ROUGH TREATMENT NEAR THE OPPOSITION NET (BELOW).

AULIE MIXED IT UP BRIEFLY (ABOVE) WITH MICHEAL HALEY OF THE ISLANDERS.

IN THE FINAL MINUTE OF REGULATION, NEW YORK GOALIE EVGENI NABOKOV RACED TO THE BENCH (ABOVE) FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER, BUT JOFFREY LUPUL OF THE LEAFS ICED THE VICTORY INTO AN EMPTY NET WITH LESS THAN 10 CLICKS REMAINING (BELOW).

AT GAME’S END, REIMER WAS MOBBED BY HIS LEAF TEAMMATES AFTER PLAYING (AND WINNING) CONSECUTIVE-NIGHT ENCOUNTERS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE HE RETURNED FROM A SIX-WEEK INJURY ABSENCE.

IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE THE ISLANDERS WERE A COMPETITIVE TEAM, BUT NASSAU COLISEUM WAS THE CAPITAL OF THE HOCKEY WORLD IN THE EARLY-1980s, WHEN THE CLUB WON FOUR CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP TITLES: CORRESPONDING BANNERS STILL HANGING IN THE ARENA.

BELEAGUERED ISLANDER FANS TODAY ARE CONSTANTLY REMINDED OF LEGENDARY PLAYERS (ABOVE) AND GREAT TEAMS (BELOW). THE CLUB IS DESPERATELY IN NEED OF A NEW FACILITY WITH MULTIPLE REVENUE STREAMS.

SECURITY PERSONNEL WISH ONE ANOTHER MERRY CHRISTMAS AT ICE LEVEL (ABOVE) AFTER THE LEAFS-ISLANDERS GAME.

YES, IT HAS BEEN NEARLY 40 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST PUCK WAS DROPPED AT NASSAU COLISEUM… OCT. 7, 1972: ISLANDERS vs. ATLANTA FLAMES.

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