Once Again, Leafs Are Gracious Hosts

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 20) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Maple Leafs are wimping out on home ice. Yes, you have heard it… last season… the one before that… six years ago… two decades ago… throughout the 1980s… and so on. After blowing the opposition out of the Air Canada Centre in the first two weeks of the schedule – grabbing nine of 10 points in a five-game homestand against Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Colorado and Winnipeg – the Leafs have regressed to their more familiar pattern of welcoming teams gracefully.

They call us “Toronto the Good” and this is another reason why.

When the Bruins came in on Nov. 5 and shellacked the Leafs by a converted touchdown – a night that increasingly looms as a turning point in the season – it began a pitiful stretch that continued on Monday against Los Angeles. A 3-2 shoot-out loss to the Kings dropped Toronto’s record to 2-5-3 in the past 10 home dates. Not many teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs with that type of meltdown and the Leafs will be watching for a seventh consecutive spring if they do not quickly regain their discourteous posture at the ACC.

The past two games have been a bit of a humiliation, as west-coast teams have come to town at the end of a long trip and left with two points – each rebounding from dreadful losses. Vancouver was overwhelmed by Carolina, of all teams, in the third period at Raleigh last Thursday, blowing a lead and losing, 4-3. But, the Canucks had only marginal difficulty in crafting a 5-3 victory here on Saturday to conclude a five-game, 11-night road swing.

Los Angeles got obliterated, 8-2, in Detroit before arriving at the Emergency Ward on Bay St. The Kings, ending a four-game, eight-night journey, outplayed every Leaf except James Reimer and left our city feeling much better thanks to Dustin Brown’s goal in the shoot-out.

Save for an unlucky carom off the glass that led directly to the Kings first goal, Reimer was superb – stopping 40 of 42 L.A. shots and preventing what could have easily been a lop-sided result. As a photo-sequence below will attest, he had opposition skaters in his grill all night, yet he smartly fought through traffic to preserve a point for the Leafs, who should be embarrassed by getting outgunned, 16-4, in the second period by a road-weary opponent. Reimer is gradually returning to form after his long injury lay-off, and now his teammates must re-assert at the opposite end. Having been at or near the top of the NHL in goals scored for much of the season, Toronto has dried up offensively, counting only 15 markers in its past six games.

Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul remain productive and Tyler Bozak is in the midst of a terrific stretch. The defence has chipped in all season – John-Michael Liles scoring against Los Angeles in his most commanding effort with the Blue and White. But, the troika of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and (especially) Nikolai Kulemin – so dependable a year ago – has been missing in action far too many nights. When illness compels Ron Wilson to insert seldom-used Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill – as it did against the Kings with David Steckel and Colby Armstrong ailing – the Leafs are doubly in need of secondary scoring; the coach essentially deployed three forward lines, keeping his two roughnecks glued to the bench most of the night.

Leafs have two games remaining before the Christmas break: home to Buffalo on Thursday and at the New York Islanders on Friday.

My images, now, from the loss to the Kings:

REFEREE GREG KIMMERLY DROPS THE PUCK (ABOVE) WITH A BIT OF STYLE BETWEEN TIM CONNOLLY OF THE LEAFS AND JARRET STOLL OF LOS ANGELES.

JUSTIN WILLIAMS (14) CELEBRATES WITH TEAMMATES AFTER OPENING THE SCORING FOR L.A., BUT HE SHOULD HAVE HIGH-FIVE’D THE STANTION ON THE END-GLASS THAT DIRECTED THE PUCK ONTO HIS STICK FOR AN EASY TAP-IN.

EXCEPT FOR A DECENT SCRAP IN FRONT OF THE LEAFS BENCH BETWEEN JAY ROSEHILL AND KYLE CLIFFORD, IT WAS A MOSTLY TAME AFFAIR ON MONDAY, THOUGH MORE PASSIVE TYPES SUCH AS PHIL KESSEL, JOFFREY LUPUL AND JARRET STOLL ENGAGED IN A MINOR DISAGREEMENT (ABOVE).

LUPUL THROWS HIS HEAD BACK IN DISGUST (ABOVE) AFTER A LESS-THAN WICKED SLASH BROKE THE COMPOSITE STICK OF KINGS’ CAPTAIN DUSTIN BROWN. LUPUL WENT OFF FOR SLASHING AT 11:47 OF THE FIRST PERIOD.

REIMER’S CHALLENGE…

IT WAS NO SIMPLE NIGHT AT THE OFFICE FOR LEAFS GOALIE JAMES REIMER, WHO HAD TO PEEK OVER, UNDER AND AROUND OPPOSITION SKATERS THROUGHOUT THE GAME (AS WE SEE IN THE ENSUING FOUR IMAGES). SIMON GAGNE (12), ANDREI LOKTIONOV (48) AND ANZE KOPITAR (11) WERE AMONG THOSE TAKING UP TOO-EASY RESIDENCE IN FRONT OF REIMER.

REIMER FINALLY GOT A BIT OF HELP FROM DEFENSEMAN LUKE SCHENN IN SECOND PERIOD (ABOVE).

THE MAN AT THE CENTRE OF THE BRIAN BURKE-KEVIN LOWE FEUD IN 2007, DUSTIN PENNER, HEADS TO THE L.A. BENCH (ABOVE).

KINGS GOALIE JONATHAN QUICK ALSO HAD A BUSY NIGHT, STOPPING 31 OF 33 SHOTS. BUT HIS TEAMMATES – AS EVIDENCED ABOVE – CLEARED THE AREA IN FRONT OF HIM.

LEAFS DEFENSEMAN JAKE GARDINER (ABOVE) IS LOSING SOME STEAM – NOT UNUSUAL FOR A ROOKIE IN THE NHL, ESPECIALLY A COLLEGE PLAYER UNACCUSTOMED TO A HEAVY SCHEDULE.

LEAF BOSSES BRIAN BURKE (LEFT) AND DAVE POULIN WERE QUIET AND PENSIVE AS THEY LOOKED ON FROM THE EXECUTIVE BOOTH MONDAY NIGHT.

A WIDE SHOT FROM THE PRESS BOX (ABOVE) SHOWS LEAFS CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF DOING A BIT OF FORECHECKING ON FRESH ICE.

LEAFS CHAIRMAN AND PART-OWNER LARRY TANENBAUM (IN YELLOW TIE) WATCHES GAME FROM THE PLATINUM SEATS BEHIND THE TORONTO BENCH. THE BEARDED MAN IN FRONT OF HIM IS ROBERT BERTRAM, LONG-TIME BOARD REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ONTARIO TEACHERS’ PENSION PLAN.

WITH HALF-A-PERIOD OF REGULATION LEFT, THE SHOT CLOCK (ABOVE) DISPLAYS THE ROLE REIMER ENACTED IN KEEPING THE SCORE EVEN THROUGH 65 MINUTES.

FROM ICE LEVEL IN THE THIRD PERIOD (ABOVE), JONATHAN QUICK RELAXES AS LEAFS FORWARD TIM CONNOLLY TURNS TOWARD ACTION HEADING THE OPPOSITE WAY.

ANOTHER CAPACITY CROWD AT THE ACC LOOKED ON ANXIOUSLY IN THE DYING MOMENTS OF REGULATION AND WENT HOME DISAPPOINTED ONCE AGAIN. LEAFS HAVE ONLY TWO WINS IN THEIR PAST 10 HOME DATES. IN OVERTIME (BELOW) KINGS DEFENSEMAN JACK JOHNSON WAS WIDE-EYED AFTER A SHOT BY KESSEL WHIZZED JUST INCHES PAST THE GOAL-POST.

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