By HOWARD BERGER
WINNIPEG (Feb. 7) – In this week of epic sports wagering, just imagine – for a moment – the windfall any of us could have collected had we placed a ridiculous bet the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs were here in Winnipeg. That was back on New Year’s Eve, after the Leafs had allowed their customary two powerplay goals-per-game in a 3-2 loss to the Jets. It was Toronto’s third consecutive defeat in a free-fall that had the club sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference: its dilemma almost solely resulting from a frightful disability while skating short-handed.
Any person suggesting, after the game, that the Leafs would kill every penalty before their next visit to Manitoba – five weeks and three nights later – would have been locked up. Wagering on such an unlikelihood might have been akin to betting that Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney would stroll along Pennsylvania Ave. in a loving embrace while accepting an afternoon-tea invite from Barack Obama. In other words: long odds. The Leafs, however, have executed a complete-180 since Dec. 31 and have conquered their Achilles heel in a manner not observed since the early-expansion years in the NHL. That’s right… perfection on the P.K. in 15 consecutive games last occurred in the 1969-70 season, when Chicago went 19 matches without being scored upon while short-handed. Leafs haven’t had a 15-game streak since the year after World War II erupted in Europe: 1940-41. Prior to the Leafs perfect January, Chicago was the last team to breeze through an entire calendar month without yielding a powerplay goal… 38 years ago, in January 1974.
This spectacular turn-around has the Leafs in an enviable position. With a 28-19-6 record, the club is nine games over .500 at this general point of the season for the first time since Dec. 31, 2005, when it looked to be easily en route to the playoffs at 22-13-3. One week later, however, in Edmonton, defenseman Bryan McCabe suffered a groin injury that kept him out of the line-up for most of January 2006. McCabe was enjoying a terrific season, offensively – on pace to demolish Ian Turnbull’s club mark for defensemen of 79 points in 1976-77. But, the slight groin-tear slowed McCabe… and sent the Leafs into a death-spiral. Toronto lost eight consecutive games and went 3-12-3 over a span of 18 matches between Jan. 10 and Mar. 4. It led to the Leafs first of six consecutive years outside the Eastern playoff bracket.
Barring a similar collapse, the 2011-12 club has a chance not only to end the franchise post-season drought but to finish among the top four seeds in the conference. Bolstered by its suddenly-infallible penalty kill, Toronto sits seventh in the East heading into tonight’s game at the MTS Centre, but only four points in back of fourth-place Philadelphia. And, who figured that to be the case in the second week of February? Having drawn even in the standings with the Leafs after the New Year’s Eve triumph, Winnipeg is now eight points back. Another victory here tonight would set up the Leafs most critical match of the season – Thursday – in Philly. Anything resembling the tear in the final-third of last season, when James Reimer performed as he currently appears capable of, once again, would easily secure a playoff berth for the Leafs, and maintain a realistic shot at home-ice advantage in the opening round.
And it is all possible, right now, because of an incredible metamorphosis while playing short-handed.
It’s a sunny but frosty day here in the ‘Peg, with temperatures nearing minus-20 C. Having arrived in the wee hours after chartering from Toronto, the Leafs did not skate this morning. The Jets did work out, having last played Sunday afternoon in Montreal. A shivery walk along Portage Ave. took me to the MTS Centre for the Winnipeg skate – my trusty Nikon in hand:
THE WALK TO MTS CENTRE (ABOVE AND BELOW) ENCOMPASSED ONLY FIVE BLOCKS THIS MORNING, YET IT SEEMED LIKE FIVE MILES IN MINUS-20 DEGREE WEATHER.
LOGO (ABOVE) ON WALL OF THE JETS DRESSING-ROOM CORRIDOR WHILE THE TEAM WORKED OUT ON THE ICE FOR HALF-AN-HOUR THIS MORNING (BELOW).
THE NOISY MTS CENTRE WILL BE JAMMED FOR TONIGHT’S SECOND VISIT BY THE LEAFS.
ALWAYS NICE TO KNOW YOU’VE MADE THE PRESS BOX LIST.
VIEW (ABOVE) FROM ZAMBONI ENTRANCE AT THE MTS CENTRE.
THE NAME OF THE SPORTS BAR ACROSS FROM THE ARENA (ABOVE) IS ONLY MILDLY SUGGESTIVE. MEANTIME, THE BUILDINGS BELOW JUST LOOK COLD, DON’T THEY?
THERE’S NOT A LOT OF JOY IN JET-VILLE RIGHT NOW, AS INDICATED BY MONDAY’S SPORTS HEADLINE (ABOVE) IN THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS. JETS ARE 5-10-1 SINCE BEATING THE LEAFS HERE ON NEW YEAR’S EVE.
Former Leaf Kyle Wellwood admits – all these years later – that it wasn’t an unfair knock… that bit about his aversion toward physical activity near the end of his days with the Blue & White. Wellwood, now playing effectively for the Jets (10-21-31 in 54 games), told me this morning he “didn’t respect” the conditioning aspect of his job in the NHL. “I was a young guy playing at close to a point-per-game in my second season [2006-07] and I felt kind of indestructable,” he said. “Then, my groin problems started and I realized how far back I was when I tried to recover. It just wasn’t possible at my level of conditioning. I ended up having three groin operations and learned a big lesson about the commitment a player has to make off the ice in order to stay in this league.”
KYLE WELLWOOD (ABOVE) IN THE JETS LOCKER ROOM AT MTS CENTRE THIS MORNING.
Perhaps the unfriendliest “wake-up” call occurred after the 2007-08 season, when Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher chose to merely waive Wellwood. The Windsor ON native was quickly claimed by Vancouver, where he enjoyed a brief renaissance with 18 goals in 2008-09. The Canucks, however, bid Wellwood adieu the following year, whereupon the Leafs 2001 draft pick fled to Mytishchi Atlant of the Kontinental Hockey League. After a 25-game stint in Russia, he was back in the NHL with San Jose during the final half of last season. Winnipeg signed Wellwood as a free agent on Sep. 8, 2011.
“I have mostly good memories of my time in Toronto – especially the early part,” he said. “But, I should have looked after myself better. It’s something I had to learn the hard way in recent years.”
WELLWOOD WAS CHOSEN 134th OVERALL BY THE LEAFS IN THE 2001 NHL DRAFT. HE PLAYED 189 REGULAR-SEASON GAMES FOR THE BLUE & WHITE, RECORDING 31 GOALS AND 77 ASSISTS FOR 108 POINTS.
It was 36 years ago tonight – Saturday, Feb. 7, 1976 – that Leafs captain Darryl Sittler enjoyed his legendary 10-point game against Boston at Maple Leaf Gardens – still a National Hockey League record for most points in one game. Sittler remains tied for most goals in one game (six) during the NHL’s so-called modern era (post-1945, when the centre-red line was introduced).
I was fortunate to attend Darryl’s big night at the Gardens – four days after my 17th birthday – and I’ve kept the program from that night in fairly mint condition, except for my defacing of the cover (below). It was a memorable experience for me; for Bruins coach Donald S. Cherry, I’m not so sure.
SITTLER ON COVER OF A LEAFS PROGRAM (ABOVE) FROM EARLIER IN THE 1975-76 SEASON AND ON THE FRONT OF THE NHL’s GOAL MAGAZINE (BELOW) THE FOLLOWING YEAR.
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