By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 5) – Though I completely understand how vulnerable fans of the Maple Leafs are feeling today, I am here to tell you that Joffrey Lupul’s absence – likely to be prolonged – will neither consume the hockey club nor destroy its playoff aspiration.
Despite Randy Carlyle’s effort to minimize the head injury suffered by Lupul against Philadelphia Thursday night – the Leafs coach absurdly suggesting it was “50-50” Lupul would be at practice today – there is little doubt the blazing Toronto forward sustained a concussion when sandwiched along the boards. In the National Hockey League today there is strict protocol for managing head trauma, and thankfully so. A player’s quality of life is far more important than professional exploit. Lupul, by all appearance, has acquired his third hockey related concussion (those reported) and we’ve come to understand that such disability is accumulative. Under no circumstance, therefore, will he be allowed to compete once again until all base-line requirements are met. That will not happen overnight.
But, neither will Lupul’s hockey team crumble without him.
Though he scored at a Gretzky-like pace after returning from a fractured arm, Lupul has not defined this Maple Leaf season. How could he possibly have done so while missing 27 of 37 games? In his absence, Leafs are 14-11-2: hardly overwhelming, but respectable. The club is 6-2-2 during games in which Lupul has appeared, but remember he was a) fresh as a daisy after sitting out between Jan. 24 and Mar. 16, and b) motoring at a clip he had no chance to sustain. Lupul and Nazem Kadri sparkled for two weeks but even Lupul scoffed at the notion they would continue to perform unconsciously.
JOFFREY LUPUL SKATING AGAINST PHILADELPHIA’S MATT READ THURSDAY NIGHT BEFORE SUFFERING HEAD INJURY. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Now, it’s incumbent upon those that contributed in Lupul’s absence – James van Riemsdyk, Matt Frattin and Tyler Bozak chief among them – to elevate their work once again and for others like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Mikhail Grabovski to provide veteran assurance. Such expectation is hardly implausible, given the Maple Leafs overall improvement this season.
To expect that Leafs will win every game is implausible.
The level of concern after Thursday’s defeat was disproportionate – as is euphoria when the club prevails. Leafs built a nice playoff buffer and then sat idly for much of the past week as Eastern opponents made up games in hand. Still, the club is five points above the Conference terminator with New York Islanders, New Jersey and New York Rangers providing a cushion.
Leafs square off against the aforementioned in five of their next seven games. Islanders, Devils and Rangers will alternately square off against each other in the final three weeks. As such, Leafs are in full control of their destiny and that hasn’t been the case at this juncture of a season for many years.
Only self-induced damage can therefore get in the way.
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