By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 26) – To be honest, I don’t remember, prior to Tuesday night, the last time I sat among spectators to watch the Maple Leafs play at Air Canada Centre. It may have been Dec. 3, 2005 – against San Jose – when I took my then nine-year-old son, Shane, to his first Leaf home game. Otherwise, I’ve been perched either in the Foster Hewitt Media Gondola or in front of my television since the Hangar opened in February 1999.
Tuesday night’s match, therefore, was an eye-opener for me.
Given the Leafs had lost five in a row and were hosting the team that today sits atop the National Hockey League standings with 105 points, I was hardly expecting a jovial environment. But, the sheer hostility among tortured souls in Sec. 307 of the southeast balcony caught me by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, with St. Louis Blues in town. The Leafs encountered an opponent that is fully equipped to win the Stanley Cup this spring; a big, rangy club with no apparent weakness. Not to make a direct comparison, but the Big Three on the St. Louis blue-line – Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk – beget visions of the defense trio that dominated the NHL with Montreal in the late-1970’s. Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe are all members of the Hockey Hall of Fame so the Blues’ troika has a way to go. No current NHL team, however, boasts such a prevailing threesome.
I HAD MY TRUSTY NIKON AT THE LEAFS-ST. LOUIS GAME TUESDAY NIGHT. FROM SEC. 307 OF THE SOUTHEAST BALCONY – THROUGH THE PROTECTIVE MESH AT RINK-SIDE – I PHOTOGRAPHED THE BEGINNING OF THE END FOR THE LEAFS: ALEX STEEN (20) CONGRATULATING T.J. OSHIE (74) ON HIS GOAL AT 15:55 OF THE FIRST PERIOD THAT TIED THE MATCH, 1-1. BLUES NEVER AGAIN TRAILED EN ROUTE TO A 5-3 VICTORY.
Some observations from the (not-so) cheap seats:
•Despite their legendary loyalty and patience, Maple Leaf fans can turn ugly at the flip of a light-switch. Toronto’s first shot on St. Louis goalie Ryan Miller – at 6:00 of the opening period – generated a loud Bronx cheer. Once the Leafs fell behind by a pair of goals, musical chants of “Let’s Go Blue Jays” began to emanate from the upper rows. Given what the Jays provided a buoyant fan-base last summer, this was desperate and dangerous. Nonetheless, the point was made.
•There is absolutely no truth to the claim that seats in the Air Canada Centre are more roomy than the old hip-huggers at Maple Leaf Gardens. Of moderate size, I was thoroughly uncomfortable. Fat spectators had to be doubly miserable throughout the Leafs sixth consecutive loss.
•Late in the game, fans greeted the appearance of Dion Phaneuf as if he were a member of the Taliban. True, the Leafs captain had a miserable night – perhaps his worst 60 minutes in a Toronto jersey – but the vitriol directed toward him was a bit over the top. If the Collapse of 2014 (sparked by the untimely absence, for five games, of No. 1 goalie Jonathan Bernier) leads to an eighth playoff no-show in nine seasons, Phaneuf is liable to get the Bryan McCabe treatment. It requires a ginormous contract and the illusion of not being able to justify its dollar value. As with McCabe in 2006-07, Leaf fans will lose perspective and patience with a defenseman that eats up half-a-game’s worth of ice-time each night – and does so effectively more often than not.
Here are some other images from my trusty Nikon:
THE SOUTHEAST-CORNER BALCONY WAS FULL OF LONG FACES AND VACANT SEATS AFTER ST. LOUIS CAPTAIN DAVID BACKES SCORED INTO AN EMPTY MAPLE LEAFS NET FOR HIS THIRD GOAL OF THE NIGHT WITH 1:07 LEFT ON THE CLOCK.
OLD LEAF NEMESIS RYAN MILLER – LATE OF BUFFALO – MADE HIS FIRST TORONTO APPEARANCE AS A MEMBER OF THE BLUES AND HAD THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE DURING THE FIRST PERIOD WHEN HIS TEAMMATES OUT-GUNNED THE HOME SIDE 23-7.
SUSPENDED FROM THE ACC GIRDERS ARE REMINDERS OF BETTER TIMES FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS: CHAMPIONSHIPS IN THE 1960’s UNDER PUNCH IMLACH AND AN ALMOST-STANLEY CUP WITH DOUG GILMOUR IN THE SPRING OF 1993.
A WIDE-EYED VIEW FROM VITRIOLIC SEC. 307 AT THE ACC.
AT THE BUZZER, FIRST-PERIOD SHOT CLOCK TOLD AN UGLY TALE.
BRENDAN MORROW AND DAVID CLARKSON HAD A LIVELY SCRAP LATE IN THE SECOND PERIOD.
BLUES CAPTAIN DAVID BACKES – WATCHED HERE BY LEAFS DEFENSEMAN CARL GUNNARSSON (36) – HAS 27 GOALS ON THE SEASON AFTER NOTCHING A HAT-TRICK.
BELEAGUERED GOALIE JONATHAN BERNIER HAD HIS HANDS FULL WITH THE ST. LOUIS BLUES; REFEREE MARC JOANNETTE AND EVEN A SHAPELY ICE SCRAPER.
MAPLE LEAFS AND BLUES DURING FIRST-PERIOD TV BREAK.
FRESHLY RE-SURFACED ICE DURING SECOND INTERMISSION.
LOOKING LEFT AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE MASSES.
AS OF TODAY, KEN HITCHCOCK IS COACHING THE NHL’s NO. 1 TEAM.
T.J. OSHIE (74) SCORED HIS 18th GOAL OF THE SEASON LAST NIGHT.
REFEREE GHISLAIN HEBERT ABOUT TO BEGIN SECOND PERIOD BY DROPPING PUCK BETWEEN TYLER BOZAK OF THE LEAFS AND DAVID BACKES OF THE BLUES.
IT’S BEEN ANYTHING BUT SWEET ? IN LEAFS LAND AS THE CLUB HAS PLAYED IN THE SHADOW ? OF ALL CONTENDERS FOR THE PAST TWO WEEKS.
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