By HOWARD BERGER
EDMONTON (Feb. 16) – You could almost hear the sigh of relief across the endless miles of Prairie between southern Ontario and northern Alberta.
When Tim Connolly scored in overtime – Tim Connolly… remember him? – giving the Leafs a 4-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place Wednesday night, the anxiety of Leafs Nation dissipated for the first time in more than a week. A season-high four-game losing streak is history because the Leafs started and ended strongly. In between, they weren’t much to get excited about, but the important moments of the match were played extremely well.
Rather than battle uphill all night – as they did unsuccessfully in Calgary on Monday – the visitors took command at the outset, scoring on two of their first three shots in the opening 98 seconds. Oilers coach Tom Renney may have called the quickest-ever time out at 1:38 of the first period, hoping to plug the leak. It worked, thanks to a mistake by Toronto goalie James Reimer, who played the puck on what appeared to be a clear icing call against Edmonton, leading to a goal by Ben Eager at 2:32. The teams settled down after that and Taylor Hall’s second-period goal – on a pretty feed by Sam Gagner – set the stage for an intriguing final frame.
LEAFS, AND THEIR FANS AT REXALL PLACE, CELEBRATE TIM CONNOLLY’S OVERTIME WINNER.
The fast track at Rexall – which has long had the best ice in the NHL – played to the strength of both teams. Leafs rookie Jake Gardiner scored his third goal of the season on a screened slap-shot at 6:46 of the third period, but it was way too early for the visitors to begin celebrating, especially with Jordan Eberle on the rival bench. The opportunistic forward capped a two-minute spate of Edmonton pressure by firing a high wrist-shot past Reimer with 4:04 left on the clock. When Darryl Boyce went off for hooking less than two minutes later, the circumstance appeared bleak for the Blue and White. But, a terrific penalty kill – re-establishing that timely edge the club had lacked in the previous four games – earned the Leafs a point… and a good feeling heading into overtime.
That’s when the “money men” went to work.
Dion Phaneuf busted his tail to lift the stick of Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney, who had a good shooting angle on Reimer. And Connolly – fast asleep for much of 2012 – went hard to the net on the transition to accept Lupul’s nifty feed through the wickets of defenseman Tom Gilbert.
Then came that huge sigh from a couple of time-zones to the east.
Please enjoy my Wednesday photo-review from here in Edmonton:
THE WEATHER WAS SENSATIONAL IN ALBERTA ON WEDNESDAY – CRYSTAL CLEAR AS MY AIR CANADA FLIGHT TOOK OFF OVER-TOP CALGARY AIRPORT (ABOVE) AT 11:40 A.M., AND INEXPLICABLY WARM FOR THIS TIME OF WINTER HERE IN EDMONTON (3 DEGREES C).
A FARM-HOUSE EXCLOSED BY A KEY-SHAPED LINE OF TREES (ABOVE) AND THE SHADOW OF OUR CRJ-200 REGIONAL JET (BELOW) GREETED US AS WE LANDED HERE, 29 MINUTES AFTER LEAVING CALGARY.
THERE IS NO QUICK WAY TO GET DOWNTOWN FROM EDMONTON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, WHICH IS LOCATED MORE THAN 30 KM SOUTH OF THE CITY. BUT, THE TREK UP HIGHWAY 2 IS NORMALLY ROUTINE AND VISITORS ARE PROUDLY GREETED BY THE SIGN BELOW.
THE STRETCH OF 66th ST. NAMED AFTER NO. 99 LEADS DIRECTLY TO THE FORMER NORTHALNDS COLISEUM (ABOVE).
HOME OF THE EDMONTON OILERS SINCE YEAR 2 OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION (1973-74) FROM THE 118th AVE. SIDE (ABOVE AND BELOW).
DUSK FALLS ON DOWNTOWN EDMONTON AND THE LIGHT-TOWERS OF COMMONWEALTH STADIUM (ABOVE).
A FOUR-GAME LOSING STREAK DIDN’T DETER THE LEAF CRAZIES OUT THIS WAY.
SEATS AT REXALL PLACE BEGIN TO FILL BENEATH THE OILERS STRING OF CHAMPIONSHIP BANNERS AT THE NORTH END OF THE ARENA.
AFTER A POOR OUTING IN CALGARY, LUKE SCHENN CHATTED IN THE WARM-UP WITH FELLOW SASKATCHEWAN NATIVE DEVAN DUBNYK (ABOVE) AND WAS SCRATCHED FOR ONLY THE SECOND TIME THIS SEASON (ALSO NOV. 5 vs. BOSTON). LEAF FANS WATCHED THEIR HEROES (BELOW) DURING THE PRE-GAME ROUTINE.
REFEREE STEPHEN WALKOM GETS SET TO DROP THE PUCK (ABOVE) BETWEEN TYLER BOZAK AND ERIC BELANGER.
OILERS GATHER AT THE BENCH (ABOVE-RIGHT) FOR A TIME OUT JUST 1:38 INTO THE MATCH, AFTER JOFFREY LUPUL AND MATT LOMBARDI HAD GIVEN THE VISITORS A QUICK 2-0 LEAD.
THE EDMONTON “GLORY YEARS” OF THE 1980s ARE COMMEMORATED AT THE NORTH END OF REXALL PLACE (ABOVE AND BELOW), INCLUDING THE OILERS FIRST STANLEY CUP BANNER. WILL WE EVER-AGAIN SEE SUCH AN INCREDIBLE ARRAY OF TALENT ON ONE TEAM?
ABOVE THE SOUTH END OF THE ARENA ARE BANNERS HONORING THE GREAT NAMES (AND RETIRED JERSEY NUMBERS) IN OILERS HISTORY – (LEFT TO RIGHT): AL HAMILTON, WAYNE GRETZKY, JARI KURRI, GRANT FUHR, PAUL COFFEY, MARK MESSIER, GLENN ANDERSON AND BROADCASTING LEGEND ROD PHILLIPS. SPEAKING OF NO. 99, HIS “BODY-GUARD” FROM THE OILERS DYNASTY – DAVE SEMENKO – WAS IN THE HOUSE WEDNESDAY NIGHT (BELOW).
THE ICE HERE IN EDMONTON HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED THE BEST IN THE NHL.
JAMES REIMER WIPES PERSPIRATION OFF HIS GOALIE-MASK (ABOVE) DURING A FIRST-PERIOD TELEVISION BREAK.
JOFFREY LUPUL AND RYAN JONES (ABOVE-LEFT) GET SET FOR A FIRST-PERIOD FACE-OFF WHILE PHIL KESSEL JOSTLES WITH “CAPTAIN CANADA” – RYAN SMYTH – ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE CIRCLE.
AFTER A BRUTAL START TO THE EVENING, OILERS GOALIE NIKOLAI KHABIBULIN SETTLED DOWN; FOUGHT THROUGH TRAIIFIC (ABOVE) AND MADE SOME KEY SAVES (BELOW) LATE IN THE FIRST PERIOD.
SO WHAT IF GRETZKY GOT AWAY WITH SLICING OPEN DOUG GILMOUR’S CHIN DURING THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS? THEY ENJOYED “EACH OTHER’S” COMPANY IN THE FIRST ROW ON WEDNESDAY (ABOVE-LEFT). JERSEYS FROM ALL DIFFERENT ERAS WERE ON DISPLAY (ABOVE-RIGHT) IN THE ARENA.
THERE WERE A FEW EMPTY SEATS IN THE HOUSE (ABOVE), BUT NOT MANY.
LESS THAN 24 HOURS AFTER VALENTINE’S DAY, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP PREVAILED IN THE CROWD (ABOVE) – EVEN AMONG FANS OF THE OPPOSING TEAMS.
FROM THE TELEVISION SIDE OF THE PRESS BOX (ABOVE), FORWARD LENNART PETRELL LEADS AN OILERS RUSH DURING THE SECOND PERIOD.
THE LEAFS MADE LIFE DIFFICULT FOR KAHBIBULIN IN THE MIDDLE FRAME, BUT THE OILERS GOALIE STOOD HIS GROUND AND BLOCKED ALL ATTEMPTS AS TORONTO OUT-SHOT EDMONTON 13-3.
TWO WEEKS AFTER HIS EIGHT-POINT EXPLOSION HERE AGAINST CHICAGO, SAM GAGNER OF THE OILERS CONVERSED WITH COACH TOM RENNEY (ABOVE-LEFT), WHILE TAYLOR HALL (RIGHT) RELAXED AFTER TYING THE GAME AT 8:15 OF THE SECOND PERIOD.
LEAFS ROOKIE JAKE GARDINER (51, ABOVE-RIGHT) PLOTTED STRATEGY WITH MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI TOWARD THE END OF A TV TIME-OUT AND THEN SCORED THE GO-AHEAD GOAL ON A SLAPSHOT FROM THE POINT (WITH A GRABOVSKI SCREEN) AT 6:46 OF THE FINAL FRAME.
LUPUL WAS SENT OFF FOR HOOKING RYAN WHITNEY ON THE ABOVE PLAY AT 11:08 OF THE THIRD PERIOD AND THE LEAFS KILLED IT OFF ONLY TO HAVE JORDAN EBERLE KNOT THE MATCH, ONCE AGAIN, LESS THAN THREE MINUTES LATER (BELOW).
ANXIETY WAS RAMPANT IN LEAF LAND WHEN DARRYL BOYCE WENT OFF FOR HOOKING (ABOVE) WITH 2:06 LEFT ON THE CLOCK. BUT, THE OILERS NEVER HAD A DECENT SCORING CHANCE DURING AN EFFECTIVE PENALTY KILL (BELOW) BY THE VISITORS.
TIM CONNOLY RE-DIRECTS LUPUL’S PASS FOR THE WINNING GOAL (ABOVE) AT 1:39 OF THE FIVE-MINUTE EXTRA PERIOD – MEANING IT WAS TIME FOR YOURS TRULY TO RACE DOWN TO THE LEAFS DRESSING ROOM WITH MY GAME PASS (BELOW).