By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 8th) – Give the Maple Leafs a wayward home game in the middle of a cold January week, and fans will often be treated to an exercise in futility. Provide this year’s team an extended interval at the Air Canada Centre… and watch out!
There are four-such examples on the schedule this season and the Leafs haven’t yet lost in regulation time (7-0-1). The club began 2011-12 with a five-game stretch at home, compiling a 4-0-1 record, and is currently a perfect 3-0 during a critical spate of nine January appearances at the ACC – interrupted only by a road match in Buffalo next Friday. Still to come is a four-game home-stand (New Jersey, Washington, San Jose, Florida), Feb. 21-28, and another four-gamer toward the end of the schedule (New York Rangers, Carolina, Philadelphia, Buffalo), Mar. 24-31. Prolonged home-cooking seems to agree with the up-and-down Maple Leafs.
The most brilliant example of Jonas Gustavsson’s re-emergence in goal for Toronto occurred on Saturday night during a 4-3 triumph over Detroit, in which the visitors enjoyed a 40-18 edge in shots. The Swedish-born netminder, beset by injury and illness through much of his tenure with the Leafs, is making a spirited bid to remain in blue and white beyond this season: a notion that seemed – until recently – quite implausible. Gustavsson was shelled in the first period of a 7-0 debacle at Madison Square Garden last Jan. 19 and did not start another game for the Leafs until Oct. 20 of this season, in Boston. A 6-2 romp by the Bruins refreshed memories of the game in New York and Leaf fans impatiently looked to the return of No. 1 goalie James Reimer from a head and neck injury.
Lo and behold, Reimer is currently glued to the bench after a shaky comeback that began – predictably – in the home of the defending champions, Dec. 3. Gustavsson has performed exceptionally well during this sequence of three games at the ACC, in which Leafs have out-scored the opposition 15-7 (the goalie recording his second NHL shut-out against Winnipeg on Thursday). He’ll remain between the pipes until he cools off, beginning with Tuesday night’s visit by the Sabres.
Meantime, much credit is due Ron Wilson and his staff for the club’s rebound on home ice. It was only last Saturday – with the penalty kill in a shambles at Winnipeg – that calls for Wilson’s scalp were intensifying, especially after he appeared to crow about a contract extension that seemed unwarranted in many circles. But, Wilson had the club ready to begin this important home-stand and the Leafs finished the first half of their schedule in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 21-15-5 for 47 points. Maintaining a 94-point pace will almost surely end the team’s record playoff absence of six post-lockout seasons.
Here, now, are my Nikon images from the Leafs Saturday victory over Detroit:
DETROIT STARTERS STAND AT ATTENTION DURING THE NATIONAL ANTHEMS AS HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA SHINES ITS MOBILE CAMERA-LIGHT ON THE VISITORS’ BENCH.
REFEREE BRAD WATSON DROPS THE PUCK (ABOVE) BETWEEN PAVEL DATSYUK AND MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI TO BEGIN THE LONE MEETING OF THE SEASON BETWEEN THE RED WINGS AND MAPLE LEAFS.
AS EXPECTED, THE RED WINGS WENT TO WORK ON JONAS GUSTAVSSON – VETERAN TODD BERTUZZI (ABOVE) SCREENING THE GOALIE ON AN EARLY SCORING CHANCE. BUT, THE CONFIDENT NETMINDER STOOD HIS GROUND, AS HE WOULD MOST OF THE NIGHT.
AT 4:30 OF THE FIRST PERIOD, PHIL KESSEL OPENED THE SCORING – BECOMING THE FIRST LEAF TO CONNECT ON A PENALTY SHOT (ABOVE AND BELOW) AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE SINCE THE CELEBRATED JOHN POHL (DEC. 26, 2006 vs. MINNESOTA). KESSEL “ROOFED” THE PUCK FOR HIS 24th GOAL OF THE SEASON.
DION PHANEUF – HIS LEFT CHEEK SWOLEN THE SIZE OF AN ORANGE – GAVE LEAFS A 2-0 LEAD LESS THAN FOUR MINUTES LATER, PROMPTING THE UNMISTAKABLE EXPRESSION (BELOW RIGHT) ON THE FACE OF DETROIT COACH MIKE BABCOCK.
WHEN DAVID STECKEL RE-DIRECTED JOFFREY LUPUL’S CROSS-FEED PAST JIMMY HOWARD AT 11:36 OF THE OPENING FRAME (ABOVE), BABCOCK HAD SEEN ENOUGH AND HE QUICKLY CALLED TIME OUT (BELOW) – A TACK THAT PROVED BENEFICIAL.
MATT LOMBARDI AND HENRIK ZETTERBERG PUT THEIR HEADS TOGETHER (ABOVE).
NO ONE WOULD HAVE LIKELY PREDICTED THE SCORE AT THE HORN TO END THE FIRST PERIOD (ABOVE), BUT LEAFS WERE FULL VALUE FOR THEIR ADVANTAGE.
FORMER LEAF JIM PAPPIN – A KEY FIGURE ON THE CLUB’S 1967 STANLEY CUP TEAM – WAS IN THE HOUSE ON SATURDAY, POSING (ABOVE) WITH A PHOTO OF EX-TEAMMATE JOHNNY BOWER OVER HIS RIGHT SHOULDER.
RIVALS ON THE ICE DURING THE 1970s, IT APPEARED AS IF DICK REDMOND (ABOVE RIGHT) HAD JUST SERVED PETER MAHOVLICH WITH COURT PAPERS IN THE FIRST INTERMISSION. REDMOND – A GOOD SCORING DEFENSEMAN WITH THE BLACKHAWKS – IS BROTHER OF MICKEY REDMOND, WHO WAS AT THE ACC AS DETROIT’S TELEVISION ANALYST. MICKEY AND PETER WERE TEAMMATES WITH TEAM CANADA DURING THE LEGENDARY 1972 SUMMIT SERIES AGAINST THE SOVIET UNION.
THE SUSHI SQUADRON WAS TYPICALLY SLOW RETURNING TO ICE-LEVEL PLATINUM SEATS FOR THE SECOND PERIOD (ABOVE), AND THE HOME TEAM FOLLOWED SUIT.
DAN CLEARY OF THE RED WINGS (ABOVE) FOUND HIMSELF ALONE IN FRONT OF GUSTAVSSON EARLY IN THE MIDDLE FRAME FOR A PASS THAT NEVER ARRIVED. BUT THE VISITORS WOULD SOON BEGIN TO CLICK.
WHEN TODD BERTUZZI PUT DETROIT ON THE BOARD AT 6:46, THE PLAY QUICKLY WENT TO VIDEO-REVIEW TO DETERMINE WHETHER HE HAD MADE CONTACT WITH HIS STICK ABOVE THE CROSSBAR. RESPECTIVE CAPTAINS DION PHANEUF AND NICK LIDSTROM GATHERED IN THE REFEREE’S CIRCLE – PHANEUF STRAINING HIS NECK (ABOVE) TO CATCH A REPLAY ON THE ACC VIDEO-BOARD. A THREE-MINUTE DELAY ENSUED (BELOW), AS REFEREE WATSON AWAITED WORD FROM THE NHL “WAR ROOM” NEXT DOOR.
PHIL KESSEL SKATES AWAY DEJECTEDLY (ABOVE) AS WATSON POINTS TO CENTRE-ICE, SIGNALLING THAT BERTUZZI HAD SCORED A LEGAL GOAL.
FEW LEAF OBSERVERS EXPECTED JAMES REIMER (ABOVE AND BELOW) TO BE ON THE BENCH FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD, BUT THE SECOND-YEAR GOALIE IS EXERCISING PATIENCE RIGHT NOW WITH GUSTAVSSON PLAYING SUPERBLY.
A PILE-UP IN FRONT OF GUSTAVSSON RESULTED IN A GOAL BY NIKLAS CRONWALL THAT BROUGHT THE VISITORS TO WITHIN ONE OF THE LEAFS AT 15:49 OF THE SECOND PERIOD. CELEBRATING DETROIT PLAYERS (ABOVE) LOOK DOWN WITH CONCERN AT TEAMMATE HENRIK ZETTERBERG, WHO WOULD RISE WITHOUT ISSUE.
FANS OF EACH TEAM SAT SIDE-BY-SIDE (ABOVE) FOR THE 643rd REGULAR-SEASON ENCOUNTER BETWEEN THE LEAFS AND RED WINGS – THE CLUBS ENTERING SATURDAY’S GAME DEAD-EVEN AT 275-275-93.
ALWAYS GOOD TO SEE MY PAL KEN DANIELS (ABOVE), THE TORONTO NATIVE THAT HAS CALLED RED WINGS GAMES ON TV SINCE 1997. THAT’S KEN’S SON, JAMIE, NEXT TO HIM (BELOW) IN THE VISITORS’ TELECAST BOOTH AT THE ACC.
AFTER FIRING ALL OF TWO PUCKS AT JIMMY HOWARD IN THE SECOND PERIOD, THE LEAFS KNEW THEY HAD TO WAKE UP AS SOON AS THE PUCK WAS DROPPED (ABOVE) FOR THE FINAL FRAME. BUT, THE WINGS WEREN’T FINISHED.
TODD BERTUZZI (ABOVE) AND JOHAN FRANZEN (BELOW) RESUMED DETROIT’S COMEBACK SURGE EARLY IN THE THIRD. TORONTO ENTERED THE FINAL 20 MINUTES A PERFECT 14-0 WHEN LEADING AFTER TWO PERIODS.
THERE WERE EIGHT PLAYERS IN THE VICINITY OF THE LEAFS NET (ABOVE), BUT NOT ONE SEEMED PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN THE PUCK.
LEAF PLAYERS AND COACH RON WILSON LOOKED ON WITH CONCERN (ABOVE) AFTER JIRI HUDLER OF THE RED WINGS ERASED TORONTO’S 3-0 LEAD AT 4:32 OF THE FINAL PERIOD.
LEAFS DID A GOOD JOB OF MAINTAINING POSITION IN THE NEUTRAL ZONE (ABOVE) AND IT PAID OFF MOMENTS LATER WHEN JOFFREY LUPUL SCORED HIS 19th GOAL OF THE SEASON ON A BACKHAND SHOT (BELOW), RECLAIMING THE LEAD FOR TORONTO.
IT WOULDN’T BE A TORONTO-DETROIT GAME WITHOUT A SHOWING OF THE BLACK-AND-WHITE IMAGE FROM 1964 (ABOVE), AS LEAFS DEFENSEMAN BOB BAUN IS INTERVIEWED ON HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA BY HOST WARD CORNELL AFTER SCORING THE OVERTIME WINNER AT THE OLYMPIA IN GAME 6 OF THE STANLEY CUP FINAL… WHILE FAMOUSLY SKATING ON A FRACTURED FOOT. THAT’S CHICAGO STAR STAN MIKITA BETWEEN BAUN AND CORNELL. MEANWHILE, THE SHOT-CLOCK IN EARLY-2012 PROVED GUSTAVSSON’S WORTHINESS ON THIS NIGHT.
AT ICE LEVEL IN THE WANING MOMENTS OF REGULATION, JIMMY HOWARD (ABOVE) CHECKED WITH MIKE BABCOCK ABOUT RACING TO THE VISITORS’ BENCH FOR AN EXTRA ATTACKER. ONCE HE WAS THERE, RON WILSON CALLED TIME OUT TO REST HIS WEARY SKATERS (BELOW) – PHIL KESSEL CHIEF AMONG THEM.
A DETERMINED MIKE BROWN (MUSTACHE ABOVE) – BACK AFTER HIS LATEST INJURY ABSENCE – LINES UP FOR A KEY FACE-OFF TO THE RIGHT OF GUSTAVSSON WITH LESS THAN 30 SECONDS TO PLAY. THE TORONTO GOALIE WOULD ROB JOHAN FRANZEN TO PRESERVE THE 4-3 VICTORY (BELOW): DETROIT’S 40-18 EDGE IN SHOTS IMMATERIAL.
DETROIT PLAYERS LEAVE THE ICE DESPONDENTLY (ABOVE) AS LEAFS CELEBRATE THEIR THIRD CONSECUTIVE HOME TRIUMPH.
FORMER CANADIAN OLYMPIC HERO CASSIE CAMPBELL, NOW OF HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA, WATCHES A TELEVISION REPLAY WITH GUSTAVSSON (ABOVE) OUTSIDE THE LEAFS DRESSING ROOM BEFORE CONDUCTING HER POST-GAME INTERVIEW (BELOW) WITH THE TORONTO GOALIE.
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