By HOWARD BERGER
VANCOUVER (Feb. 19) – If it weren’t so utterly predictable, it might be appropriate to express alarm over the Maple Leafs total capitulation at Rogers Arena on Saturday.
But, why waste our time?
Even the most rabid follower of the Blue and White understood that confronting the white-hot Vancouver Canucks in their den had the potential to be an appalling experience, and the Leafs didn’t disappoint. They played the first period like a pack of frightened rabbits – falling behind, 2-0, before the 10-minute mark and getting out-shot, 11-4, en route to a 6-2 loss. Any person with an antique pair of binoculars could have seen this one coming.
There will be an inclination among Leaf supporters to pin the club’s embarrassing defeat solely on James Reimer, who is playing poorly in his difficult sophomore season and will probably be relegated to back-up duty for the foreseeable future. Others, of course, will implore Brian Burke to cast a spell on his managerial colleagues and pull off a miraculous trade. Best wishes to those who reside in that camp. Still others will fetch permanent markers from their office and giddily ‘X’ out each day that leads to the inevitable firing of coach Ron Wilson.
In the end, none of it will make a shred of difference.
The Maple Leafs of 2011-12 are what they are… a better overall group than any in the post-lockout era, but frighteningly erratic, and plagued, once again, by unreliable goaltending. As anyone that regularly visits this corner would know, I have unreservedly supported Reimer through his first full NHL season, given the frequent pattern of decline among second-year players, particularly those that are stopped in their tracks by a debilitating head injury two weeks into the schedule. I wrote a column last month entitled IT’S OPTIMUS REIM OR BUST – suggesting only a return to form by last season’s goaltending hero could possibly end the Leafs playoff drought. If you’re a fan of the Blue and White, you’d better start praying I’m wrong, for there’s no indication that Reimer will regain his mojo until next season at the earliest.
The result of this is two-fold: Wilson has no choice now but to lean almost exclusively on Jonas Gustavsson, hoping the Monster can perform as he did through much of Reimer’s absence early in the year, and then again during a seven-victory revival in January. If Burke isn’t comfortable with that plan – or perhaps even if he is – he’ll be seeking veteran help between the pipes before the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline. Rest assured this would not fetch the Leafs a goalie they could build their future around (again), but such a deal nearly resulted in a miracle for Tampa Bay upon snatching 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders on New Year’s Day 2011; the Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference final and extended Boston to a deciding match at the TD Garden before losing, 1-0, to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
That alone could provide impetus for Burke to acquire a journeyman before next week.
JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING WENT TO PIECES IN FRONT OF JAMES REIMER ON SATURDAY.
Goaltending, however, isn’t the only issue. The Leafs have been largely incapable of attaining middle-ground this season, a trend that unfolded with all its might while the club was here in western-Canada. The visitors were comatose in the early going at Calgary on Tuesday, falling behind the Flames, 2-0, by the 8:13 mark of the opening period en route to a 5-1 spanking. Less than 24 hours later – in Edmonton – the Leafs pulled a 180 and crafted a 2-0 lead just 1:38 into the game. They beat the Oilers, 4-3, on Tim Connolly’s overtime goal. Here in Vancouver, it was back to square one, yielding the first two goals before the 10-minute mark.
The loss in Calgary was consigned, by some, to jet-lag while the surrender here partly resulted from a “drained battery”, according to Wilson.
If the young, speedy Leafs could not adjust, in the opener, to one of the few time-zone issues they face – and were too tired to bother challenging the Canucks after a pair of off-days in rainy B.C. – I’m not getting overly excited about their chance of sustaining a late-season push for the playoffs. Wilson is bang-on when he says his team must play better in front of its goaltenders, whether the man between the pipes is having a good game or a bad game.
Urging a bit of uniformity from this club, however, may be nothing more than a prayer.
My photo-review, now, of Saturday’s lone visit by the Maple Leafs this season to Vancouver:
FANS OF BOTH CLUBS WERE FULLY DECORATED AS THEY WALKED TO THE ARENA FOR SATURDAY’S 4 P.M. START, COINCIDING WITH THE 7 O’CLOCK EARLY GAME BACK EAST FOR HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA.
ROGERS ARENA HERE IN VANCOUVER, WHERE THE BOSTON BRUINS RAISED THE STANLEY CUP LAST JUNE AND SIDNEY CROSBY WON AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL FOR CANADA TWO YEARS AGO THIS MONTH.
INDEED, “WE ARE ALL CANUCKS” INCLUDING THE DAPPER GENTLEMAN IN THE ABOVE PHOTO – FORMER NHL ROUGHNECK JACK McILHARGEY, WHO PLAYED HERE IN VANCOUVER IN THE ’70s AND IS NOW A PRO SCOUT WITH HIS ORIGINAL TEAM, THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS. VETERAN LEAF FANS WILL REMEMBER McILHARGEY BRAWLING WITH THE LIKES OF TIGER WILLIAMS AND KURT WALKER IN THE PLAYOFFS MORE THAN THREE DECADES AGO.
MY PAL MIKE ZEISBERGER OF THE TORONTO SUN GETS AN EARLY START ALONG PRESS ROW (ABOVE) WHILE I SEEK MY OWN ROGERS ARENA LOCATION (BELOW).
YES, OF COURSE TYLER BOZAK HAS LEGS… IT JUST DOESN’T APPEAR SO IN THE ABOVE PHOTO, TAKEN DURING THE PRE-GAME WARM-UP ON SATURDAY.
THE REQUISITE BAND OF LEAF ROOTERS WERE CLOSE TO ICE LEVEL DURING THE WARM-UP, SNAPPING PHOTOGRAPHS OF THEIR FAVORITE PLAYERS.
REFEREE DENNIS LaRUE GETS LOW BEFORE CONDUCTING THE OPENING FACE-OFF BETWEEN BOZAK AND RYAN KESSLER OF THE CANUCKS.
NOT ONE HALF OF THE FIRST PERIOD HAD EXPIRED BEFORE THE LEAFS WERE IN A 2-0 HOLE.
IN THE MIDST OF AN OTHERWISE-EASY NIGHT, ROBERTO LUONGO HAD TO BRIEFLY CONTEND WITH LEAF PEST COLBY ARMSTRONG (ABOVE), WITH HELP FROM DEFENSEMAN – AND TORONTO NATIVE – CHRISTOPHER TANEV.
DEADLINES WERE HARDLY AN ISSUE FOR VISITING SCRIBES (ABOVE-LEFT), AS THE CANUCKS MADE SATURDAY’S GAME AN EASY ONE TO WRITE. IT WAS ANYTHING BUT EASY FOR REIMER (RIGHT), WHO HAD TO PEEK THROUGH TRAFFIC IN THE OPENING FRAME.
BANNERS HANGING IN ROGERS ARENA (ABOVE) HONOR TWO OF THE MOST POPULAR SKATERS IN CANUCKS FRANCHISE HISTORY.
THERE WASN’T MUCH FIGHT IN THE LEAFS ON SATURDAY, BUT LUKE SCHENN – BACK IN THE LINE-UP AFTER BEING SCRATCHED IN EDMONTON – DID HAVE A SMALL DISAGREEMENT WITH VANCOUVER’S MAX LAPIERRE. I CANNOT TELL YOU, FOR THE LIFE OF ME, WHAT CLARKE MacARTHUR IS DOING WITH HIS STICK.
TILT YOUR NECK SLIGHTLY TO THE RIGHT AND YOU’LL ENJOY A BETTER ANGLE (ABOVE) OF DAVID BOOTH FIRING A SLAP-SHOT FROM MID-POINT AT THE TORONTO GOAL ON SATURDAY.
THE CANUCKS HAVE HAD A NUMBER OF JERSEY DESIGNS IN THEIR 43-YEAR HISTORY – SEVERAL OF WHICH PROMPTED UPROARIOUS LAUGHTER. MOST WERE ON DISPLAY AT ROGERS ARENA ON SATURDAY, INCLUDING THE INFAMOUS YELLOW “V” ADAPTATION FROM THE LATE-’70s AND EARLY-’80s. WE’RE NOT SURE IF THE MAN AT BOTTOM-LEFT OF THE ABOVE PHOTO IS MUNCHING ON FOOD, OR TRYING TO INDUCE VOMITING AFTER GLANCING AT THE MONSTROSITY OVER HIS LEFT SHOULDER.
LEAF SUPPORTERS – MANY WITH SICKLY EXPRESSIONS – WERE PROMINENT, AS ALWAYS, WITH THEIR FAVORITE CLUB IN TOWN.
HAVING SCORED ONE OF THE VANCOUVER GOALS, ALEX BURROWS IS INTERVIEWED (ABOVE-LEFT) ON THE ROGERS ARENA VIDEO-BOARD IN THE FIRST INTERMISSION. AND I DID SOME PREENING FOR THE CAMERA (AT RIGHT) BEFORE JOINING BLAKE PRICE FOR A LIVE INTERVIEW ON THE TEAM-1040, RADIO HOME OF THE CANUCKS.
RON MacLEAN WILL KILL ME FOR THIS, BUT HE MAY NEVER HAVE FLASHED A MORE PRICELESS EXPRESSION DURING ALL OF HIS YEARS ALONGSIDE DON CHERRY IN THE COACH’S CORNER. I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO, UNSUSPECTINGLY, OFF A MONITOR HANGING FROM THE PRESS BOX.
THE LEAFS WOKE UP FOR A TIME IN THE SECOND PERIOD AND MADE LUONGO WORK (ABOVE). IT LED TO THE VISITORS’ FIRST GOAL OF THE NIGHT (BELOW) – A ONE-TIME SLAPSHOT BY DION PAHNEUF OFF A CENTERING FEED FROM PHIL KESSEL.
WHO KNOWS WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED HAD KESSEL NOT WHIFFED ON THE ABOVE “GIMME” JUST MORE THAN FOUR MINUTES AFTER PHANEUF’S GOAL. HAD THE LEAFS LEADING SCORER DEPOSITING THE PUCK INTO A YAWNING CAGE, THE VISITORS WOULD HAVE CUT VANCOUVER’S LEAD TO 3-2. INSTEAD…
DANIEL SEDIN RESTORED THE CANUCKS THREE-GOAL MARGIN 58 SECONDS AFTER KESSEL’S FLUB, SPELLING THE END FOR REIMER. JONAS GUSTAVSSON PREPARED TO REPLACE HIS GOAL-MATE (BELOW) AT 11:14 OF THE MIDDLE FRAME.
JUST 1:34 AFTER ENTERING THE MATCH, GUSTAVSSON WAS BEATEN BY SAMI SALO FOR VANCOUVER’S FIFTH GOAL – THE PUCK (ABOVE) WHIZZING PAST HIS OUTSTRETCHED GLOVE AND PROMPTING A MOMENT OF REFLECTION (BELOW).
OH, WAS THE OFFICIAL SCORE-SHEET UGLY FOR THE VISITORS AFTER THE SECOND PERIOD.
KESSLER AND BOZAK GET SET TO BEGIN THE FINAL FRAME (ABOVE) WITH REFEREE CHRIS LEE DOING THE HONORS AT CENTRE-ICE.
AND ON IT WENT… THE CANUCKS REGISTERING A SIXTH TALLY (ABOVE) – BY KEVIN BIEKSA – AT 8:25 OF THE THIRD PERIOD.
MATT LOMBARDI OF THE LEAFS GETS SOME ROUGH TREATMENT FROM ALEX BURROWS (ABOVE-LEFT) WHILE SCHENN AND REIMER SIT GLUMLY (RIGHT) ON THE VISITORS’ BENCH.
DANIEL SEDIN HAD A GOAL AND THREE ASSISTS IN THE VANCOUVER ROMP AND HE PREPARED TO DO A LIVE POST-GAME INTERVIEW (ABOVE) WITH THE TEAM-1040 OUTSIDE THE CANUCKS DRESSING ROOM.
ROBERTO LUONGO CONCENTRATES WHILE LISTENING TO AN ELLIOTTE FRIEDMAN POST-GAME QUERY ON HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA (ABOVE-LEFT) AND RON WILSON DEFENDS REIMER IN HIS SESSION WITH REPORTERS.
TRAFFIC WHIZZES PAST ILLUMINATED B.C. PLACE STADIUM – ACROSS FROM ROGERS ARENA – MOMENTS AFTER SATURDAY’S HOCKEY GAME.
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