By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 2) – You could probably count on one hand how often our country’s busiest play-by-play broadcaster has grumbled about a hockey assignment. But, Chris Cuthbert of TSN had a glazed-over expression as I rode the media elevator down from the press box with him after Wednesday night’s snore-fest at the Air Canada Centre… and who could blame him?
The crowd somehow managed to stay awake and left the building relieved that the home side was able to preserve a one-goal advantage in the final minute of play – Leafs having coughed up tying markers in the waning seconds of their previous two games: at Long Island and Pittsburgh. On this night, however, Clarke MacArthur’s 16th goal of the season, with only 6:05 left in regulation, stood as the winner in a 1-0 triumph over the Penguins.
The opener of the home-and-home set, on Tuesday, had been a rousing affair – Pittsburgh storming back from a 4-1 third-period deficit to beat the Leafs, 5-4, in a shoot-out. Wednesday’s result was more appealing for fans of the Blue and White – the only context in which such a term could apply. The game had limited flow; even less energy, and fear mounted among scribes tapping away on deadline that a 16-round marathon of penalty shots might be needed to declare a winner.
But, the unit of MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin came through, as it routinely has in the past half-dozen games. Should this trend continue, it could rank as the most critical development of the entire Leafs season – assuming, of course, it does not coincide with decaying productiveness from the Phil Kessel-Joffrey Lupul tandem. Toronto’s best forward line of a year ago had been dormant over long stretches of the season, demanding too much from Kessel and Lupul. Shared scoring among the team’s half-dozen premier forwards (Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak joining in) would significantly enhance the Leafs playoff design.
Such ambition would also be strengthened by a re-birth of confidence in goalie James Reimer, who heard all sorts of beautiful pinging on Wednesday to record his first shut-out since the season opener, Oct. 6, against Montreal. Pittsburgh rang half-a-dozen shots off the iron in back of Reimer, including a deflection by James Neal seconds before MacArthur’s tally. No such luck had previously accompanied Reimer in his sophomore campaign and relief was etched all over his face when the horn sounded to end the game.
MY CAMERA WAS POISED FOR THE REACTION OF JAMES REIMER AT THE CONCLUSION OF WEDNESDAY’S SHUT-OUT VICTORY OVER THE PENGUINS – TEAMMATE CARL GUNNARSSON KEEPING A CLOSE WATCH.
After spending much of January at home, the Leafs are in the midst of a road-heavy schedule that continues in Ottawa on Saturday; at Winnipeg and Philadelphia next week, then at Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver the following week. Sprinkled in are home games against the Oilers (on Monday) and the Canadiens (a week from Saturday), before which Mats Sundin’s No. 13 banner will be raised at the Air Canada Centre among the other all-time greats in franchise history.
My photo-review, now, of the Toronto-Pittsburgh game – Leafs wearing their road whites; Penguins their home black uniforms.
THE GAME OFFICIALS – REFEREES DON VAN MASSENHOVEN (21) AND TOM KOWAL (32); LINESMEN MARK WHELER (56) AND BRIAN MACH (78) OBSERVE A PRE-GAME CEREMONY (ABOVE), THEN STAND AT CENTRE-ICE (BELOW) DURING NATIONAL ANTHEMS.
HAD THE ABOVE TREND PREVAILED, THE PENGUINS WOULDN’T LIKELY HAVE BEEN BLANKED, AS IT IS NEVER WISE TO LEAVE EVGENI MALKIN UNGUARDED BESIDE THE NET.
STEVE SULLIVAN (26 ABOVE) IS STILL DANGEROUS AROUND THE OPPOSITION GOAL, NEARLY 15 YEARS AFTER BEING ACQUIRED BY THE MAPLE LEAFS FROM NEW JERSEY IN THE MULTI-PLAYER DEAL THAT SENT DOUG GILMOUR TO THE DEVILS (FEB. 25, 1997).
WIDE SHOTS (ABOVE AND BELOW) OF FIRST-PERIOD ACTION ON WEDNESDAY. NOTE HOW REIMER HAS TO PEEK AROUND CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF IN THE FACE-OFF IMAGE BELOW.
GIVEN HIS PERILOUS LOCATION DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF GOALIE BRENT JOHNSON (ABOVE), LEAFS FORWARD TYLER BOZAK SEEMS AWFULLY RELAXED, DOESN’T HE?
AS PER HIS CUSTOM, REIMER VISITED THE TORONTO BENCH DURING TELEVISION BREAKS (ABOVE AND BELOW).
LOOK OUT! THE LEAFS GOALIE HAD TO QUICKLY DUCK BENEATH A RISING SHOT IN THE OPENING PERIOD (ABOVE).
THOUGH WEDNESDAY’S GAME WILL NEVER BE SHOWN ON ESPN CLASSICS, IT WASN’T QUITE AS DREADFUL AS THE MALFUNCTIONING SHOT-CLOCK INDICATED (ABOVE) IN THE FINAL MINUTE OF THE OPENING PERIOD.
THIS MAN HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO STAY AWAKE AND ALERT. NHL DIRECTOR OF OFFICIATING TERRY GREGSON (ABOVE) REVIEWED VIDEO IN HIS PRESS BOX LAIR DURING THE FIRST INTERMISSION. A COUPLE OF BOOTHS AWAY, LEAFS GENERAL MANAGER BRIAN BURKE ENGAGED (BELOW) IN CONVERSATION WITH PENGUINS COUNTERPART RAY SHERO.
AN APPARENT GOAL BY CHRIS KUNITZ OF THE PENGUINS EARLY IN THE MIDDLE FRAME WENT TO VIDEO-REVIEW AFTER PHANEUF QUICKLY CHECKED WITH REFEREE KOWAL (ABOVE). PLAYERS CONVENE AT THE BENCHES (BELOW) AS DON VAN MASSENHOVEN CONVERSES WITH THE NHL “WAR ROOM” ADJACENT TO THE ACC.
THE VERDICT – AS DELIVERED BY VAN MASSENHOVEN – WAS POPULAR WITH THE CROWD.
NONE OF MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI; LINESMAN MARK WHELER, OR EVGENI MALKIN SEEMED PARTICULAR INTERESTED IN THE PUCK (ABOVE).
REIMER HAD TO BE SHARP IN THE SECOND PERIOD WITH KUNITZ ON HIS DOOR-STEP (ABOVE). CARL GUNNARSSON AND JOFFREY LUPUL FORMED A PROTECTIVE WALL IN FRONT OF THE LEAFS GOALIE (BELOW) AT A STOPPAGE IN PLAY.
APPARENTLY, THE IMAGE OF ME SNAPPING THE ABOVE PHOTO OF FORMER LEAF GARY ROBERTS, MIDWAY THROUGH THE SECOND PERIOD, WAS FLASHED LIVE ON THE AIR CANADA CENTRE VIDEO-BOARD, THOUGH I ASSURE YOU IT WASN’T PLANNED THAT WAY.
LEAFS FORWARD MIKE BROWN CAUSED HAVOC IN THE PENGUINS CREASE IN THIS TRIO OF PHOTOS DURING THE MIDDLE FRAME, DRAWING THE ATTENTION (ABOVE) OF DEFENSEMEN KRIS LETANG (58) AND BROOKS ORPIK (44). FORWARD MATT COOKE (24) JOINED THE FRAY AFTER THE WHISTLE (TWO BELOW).
BRIAN BURKE WATCHED INTENTLY FROM HIS EXECUTIVE BOOTH (ABOVE AND BELOW), ACCOMPANIED BY ONE OF HIS CHIEF LIEUTENANTS, CLAUDE LOISELLE.
DION PHANEUF USES ARM, BODY AND LEG TO PREVENT STEVE SULLIVAN (ABOVE) FROM ENCROACHING ON REIMER, WHILE ROOKIE JAKE GARDINER (51) FLASHES KUNITZ HIS MOST MENACING LOOK.
AFTER NURSING A CONCUSSION FOR 18 GAMES, FORWARD COLBY ARMSTRONG (9, ABOVE RIGHT) WAS BACK IN THE LEAFS LINE-UP FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE DEC. 17. HE CHATS HERE WITH MIKE BROWN (18) AND DAVID STECKEL (20).
GEORGE ARMSTRONG – CAPTAIN OF THE LEAFS DURING THEIR STANLEY CUP DYNASTY OF THE 1960s – WATCHES THE TORONTO-PITTSBURGH GAME FROM HIS USUAL PERCH BEHIND THE PRESS BOX. WE SHOULD ALL BE AS FIT AND FRISKY AS THE CHIEF WHEN WE TURN 81.
THE MOMENT’S PANIC (ABOVE): A JAMES NEAL DEFLECTION RICOCHETS OFF THE CROSSBAR IN BACK OF REIMER WITH 6:25 REMAINING IN THE SCORELESS GAME.
CLARK MacARTHUR’S GOAL LESS THAN HALF-A-MINUTE LATER (ABOVE AND BELOW) WOULD STAND AS THE LONE MARKER OF THE DREARY MATCH.
LEAFS KEPT THE HEAT ON THE PENGUINS IN THE WANING MOMENTS – LUPUL AND TYLER BOZAK DOING SPADE-WORK IN THE CORNER (ABOVE); LUPUL CAMPING IN HIS USUAL SPOT (BELOW) IN FRONT OF THE OPPOSITION NET.
JOHNSON RACED TO THE VISITORS’ BENCH IN THE FINAL MINUTE (ABOVE) FOR A SIXTH ATTACKER, AND THE PENGUINS CONVENED DURING A TIME-OUT (BELOW) SECONDS LATER.
SECONDS AFTER THE FINAL HORN (ABOVE) REIMER APPEARED TO BE SAYING SOMETHING TO MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI THAT HE DID NOT WANT CARL GUNNARSSON TO HEAR. AS IS CUSTOM AFTER A HOME VICTORY, LEAF PLAYERS GATHERED AT CENTRE-ICE TO SALUTE THE ACC CROWD (BELOW).
GOAL-SCORER MacARTHUR LEAVES THE ICE (ABOVE) AFTER BEING NAMED SECOND STAR OF THE GAME, WHILE NO. 1-STAR REIMER (BELOW) WAVES TO THE CROWD WITH A SMILE NOT OFTEN IN EVIDENCE THIS SEASON.
TOMMY BLATCHFORD (ABOVE LEFT) OF THE LEAFS’ EQUIPMENT STAFF HELPS HIS PITTSBURGH COUNTERPART LOAD VISITORS’ BAGS ONTO A CART AFTER THE GAME.
SIDNEY CROSBY’S HAIR HAS GROWN (ABOVE) DURING HIS LATEST CONCUSSION-NECK-SOFT-TISSUE ABSENCE, WHILE MARIO LEMIEUX (BELOW) APPEARS NOT TO BE SKIPPING MEALS. OKAY… THESE ARE PENGUINS FANS HEADING TO THE SUBWAY AFTER WEDNESDAY’S GAME.