By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 16) – What a great opportunity awaits the Maple Leafs tonight in Pittsburgh. Normally, a person suggesting this would be wrapped in a white coat, given the Penguins’ crop of wondrous talent. But, the situation here is different.
I don’t ever recall a National Hockey League team going into a game without its top four defenseman. Do you? That’s what Pittsburgh will have to overcome in order to knock off the Maple Leafs tonight at Consol Energy Center. Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi are sidelined with broken bones and concussions. Instead, the Penguins will have to rely on the likes of veteran Matt Niskanen and youngsters Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Robert Bortuzzo.
If you’re saying “Who?” you’re not alone.
THE PENGUINS TOP DEFENSEMAN – KRIS LETANG (ABOVE) – IS OUT OF THE LINE-UP FOR TONIGHT’S GAME AT CONSOL ENERGY CENTER AGAINST TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
Compounding matters will be the almost-certain absence of Evgeni Malkin, who suffered an injury to his left leg when he careened into the end boards at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday. It’s difficult to imagine a team having more of a head start than the Leafs do tonight.
Will the Blue and White capitalize? Absolutely, 100 percent not if the club dilly dallies onto the ice as in St. Louis last Thursday – unprepared, beyond reason, to encounter a strong opponent. If, however, the Leafs choose to expend energy as they did in their past two home games (against Los Angeles and Chicago), a win over the undermanned Penguins should not be difficult (if anything is easy for the Buds).
Prior to the season – citing the traditional model of a Stanley Cup contender – I suggested that either Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer would have to evolve into an undisputed No. 1 goalie for the Leafs; that sharing the load is normally a sign that neither puck-stopper has excelled. Given Leafs penchant for yielding 40-plus shots, Bernier and Reimer have needed to divide responsibility in the first two months of season – both men alternately appearing to out-perform the other.
In my view, this is not a good long-range plan for the Leafs. Bernier, without question, was acquired from Los Angeles last June to be the club’s go-to man between the pipes. Proud and competitive, Reimer has not facilitated such an arrangement. There is no quit in Optimus Reim and he is clearly not prepared to cede the role to his new partner. Bernier, however, will appear in his fourth consecutive game tonight (three starts and a questionable relief appearance in St. Louis). Is Randy Carlyle prepared to stay with the Laval, Que. native through thick and a little thin – again, the strategy I believe will best suit Leafs over time? Or, will he continue to dither over a clear No. 1 goalie based on the previous game’s result? Considering Leafs are 7-10-3 since the end of October, the alternating system hasn’t served them particularly well.
MONDAY THOUGHTS: I understood, to a degree, Don Cherry’s defense of Shawn Thornton during his Coach’s Corner pulpit on Saturday night – suggesting a 15-game suspension was too harsh. Thornton, though he lost his mind against Brooks Orpik last week, is a tough but generally honest player and the type of enforcer most NHL teams would welcome. The underlying premise, however, is one that disturbs me more than any facet of the game right now – the need for a player, having delivered a clean bodycheck, to defend himself by accepting a fight. This is a relatively recent development (over the past 10 or 15 years) and has never been adequately dealt with by the NHL. The assessment of an instigator penalty – when it happens – is clearly not the answer. Having to drop the gloves after a punishing hit is becoming a part of the game’s fabric. Which is absurd. Clean bodychecking has always been part of the game’s fabric and no player delivering such a blow should have to answer for it by getting swarmed upon by a member of the opposition. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: What happens next? A player being challenged to fight after scoring a goal? Scoring and bodychecking have forever been accepted as routine strategy in the game… you can’t win without the former and you often gain an edge with the latter. The “mentality” of hockey has not been served well by enabling opponents to “get even” for a clean hit. But, neither do I believe the NHL will firmly address the issue… On the topic of relatively new trends, God bless the St. Louis Blues for doing away with the silly fly-by that all other teams insist upon after scoring a goal. Skating past the bench and high-fiving teammates began in Peewee hockey, and there it should have remained. The St. Louis players – under Ken Hitchcock – score a goal; celebrate, and then march directly to center-ice (either with the same unit or upon a line change) for the ensuing face-off. That’s the way it should be… Refusing to launch into theatrics after scoring is an appealing part of Phil Kessel’s character. Many many others should follow… Interesting how so many hockey viewers have pulled an about-face with Bob Cole. Not many years ago, the legendary voice of Hockey Night In Canada was ridiculed in news-print and on-line for his diminishing ability to keep up with the game’s tempo, and to quickly identify players. Now that Cole has been relegated to spot duty, fans have truly warmed to his legacy, and to the inarguable fact that only Foster Hewitt and Danny Gallivan have left similar marks on hockey broadcasting in this country. Cole is a national treasure and should be recognized as such… This will go over like a lead-balloon but I don’t care. Gary Bettman – everyone’s favorite target – has easily become the best commissioner in North American sport. No leader has confronted and dealt successfully with nearly as many franchise ownership issues, nor has any pro enterprise – basketball included – grown its revenue so proportionately in the past 20 years. Many will say Bettman created the fires he had to douse. But, covering all corners of the North American map has long been the strategy of Bettman’s employer – the NHL owners – and has been sound strategy from the perspective of TV coverage. Chauvinism toward hockey – and, occasionally, an undertone of anti-Semitism north of the border – will ensure that Bettman is neither credited for his accomplishments nor accepted as a “true” man of the sport. Both stands are ridiculous… I mentioned on Twitter the other day that Brian Burke needs a general manager in Calgary like the Pope needs a Bishop. No matter who slides in beneath double-B, everyone in the Flames organization will know where the buck stops. That said, Burke is pursuing a GM and it’s been whispered to me that Maple Leafs executive Dave Poulin has the inside track on the job. Burke and Poulin chatted at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night (Burke was there to scout for the U.S. Olympic team) and such a move would make sense on so many levels. Burke hired Poulin with the Leafs and Poulin is widely respected for his knowledge of the game; his legacy as captain of the good Philadelphia Flyer teams of the 1980’s; his terrific success as coach at Notre Dame University, and for his excellent communication skill. Burke would serve Calgary well by hiring the Timmins, Ont. native.
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