By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 6) — Hate to say it, Leaf fans, but your team will actually win a hockey game tonight. That’s “win” — W-I-N — defined by Dictionary.com as: “to finish first in a race, contest, or the like.”
The “race” tonight is for most goals at the Prudential Center in Newark. The “contest” is Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New Jersey Devils. And there could be multitudes that do not “like” the outcome. Take, for example, Ruth Cammalleri. Or, her brother (and my pal) Lenny Gelbard. The mother and uncle of Richmond Hill native Michael Cammalleri are hoping their son and nephew will snap in a couple of goals for the Devils. Fans of the Maple Leafs — the world over, it appears — are likely wishing the same as their team plummets toward the nether regions and the fantasy of either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. As such, countless people will be miffed when they pull back the covers to begin their weekend.
DIGITAL COLOR PHOTOGRAPHY DID EXIST THE LAST TIME THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS WON A GAME — AS EVIDENCED BY THIS IMAGE, JAN. 9, OF MORGAN RIELLY CHASING THE BLUE JACKETS’ SCOTT HARTNELL. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Yes, non–believers, it is Friday — exactly four weeks since the Maple Leafs last played on this night of the week… and last won a game. That was Jan. 9, against Columbus, a 5–2 victory at Air Canada Centre fueled by four goals in the first period. Since then? Yeech! An 0–9–1 pratfall that has quasi–equaled the longest losing streak in franchise history (“quasi” because some say, with merit, the lost shootout point at Newark nine nights ago wasn’t a true defeat — as in February 1967, when shootouts and overtime did not exist and the record–10 consecutive Leaf losses all occurred in regulation). At this moment, New Jersey may not be the ideal opponent for the Leafs, with a 6–2–2 mark in its past ten games. But, my strong hunch contends that Toronto will finally evade defeat tonight at the “Rock” — doubling the Devils, 4–2. It will be the Leafs first road triumph since New Year’s Eve in Boston and first regulation–time victory away from home since Dec. 23, when Jonathan Bernier blanked Dallas, 4–0 (the visitors were out–shot, 43–26).
MORE FRIDAY MUSINGS: Here’s another oddity. Tomorrow night, against Edmonton, will be the Maple Leafs first Saturday home game in seven weeks — dating to a 7–4 loss against Philadelphia on Dec. 20. Which may be the longest–such absence in club history. Saturday has forever been a “home” night for the Leafs. Even in the five seasons thus far interrupted by National Hockey League participation in the Winter Olympics (1998 Nagano; 2002 Salt Lake City; 2006 Turin; 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi), Toronto has been away from home a maximum five consecutive Saturdays. The ultra–long absence this year spanned the World Junior Hockey Championships (playoff games were at Air Canada Centre) and the week–long hiatus for the All–Star game in Columbus. As such, the Leafs, tonight in Newark, finally conclude the slog (dating to Dec. 21 at Chicago) of playing 16 of 20 games on the road — a stretch that demolished their playoff hopes. Leafs were 10–3–1 in 14 games heading into their annual engagement at the United Center and are 3–15–1 since the puck dropped at Chicago. Toronto’s 7–15–4 road record is, not surprisingly, a bottom–five mark in the NHL… While I’m thinking about it, the last home victory for the Leafs on a Saturday night was eight weeks ago — a 4–1 conquest of Detroit on Dec. 13. Eight weeks from tomorrow will be the penultimate Saturday of the 2014–15 schedule (Apr. 4) with Boston here in town… This Saturday will be the 39–year anniversary of Darryl Sittler’s 10–point game (six goals and four assists) against the Bruins at Maple Leaf Gardens — Feb. 7, 1976. I had the privilege of attending that match, just after my 17th birthday. Don Cherry was coaching Boston; Red Kelly, the Leafs. Nearly four decades later, it is still a record for most points in a game (regular season or playoffs). As you can see in the entry, below, from the official NHL Guide & Record Book, nine players have since registered eight points in a game — Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux doing it twice…
Though I understand the bizarre concept, I still chuckle at the notion the Maple Leafs are “tanking” to achieve a better lottery result for the NHL draft this June in Sunrise, Fla. Think about it for a moment: After whipping Anaheim, 6–2, at Air Canada Centre on Dec. 16, the Leafs were 10–1–1 in 12 games and within three points of first place in the Eastern Conference. The prevailing theory would have resulted in a person of authority (Brendan Shanahan, David Nonis, Randy Carlyle) — perhaps on the flight the next day to Raleigh, N.C. — urging the troops to deliberately fail from that point forward. Imagine Carlyle standing at the front of the plane: “Uh, guys, we’re playing too well right now. Let’s begin a good, healthy losing streak so I can be fired and you can be raked over the coals for the next two months. Sound like a plan?” Methinks not. Though the Leafs are probably a shred more capable than they’ve appeared since that time, the club has found its legitimate level (in and around the .500 mark). And, if there is a “tanking” plan — such as trying to off–load talent and depth at the trade deadline — we all know what will happen. Amid no team pressure, young players will step up to improve their chances of remaining in the NHL. The Leafs will have a good final month–and–a–bit of the season and destroy any such design. So, do yourself a favor and take the “plan” with a grain of salt. It never will exist among professional athletes. A team doesn’t “tank.” It loses because it isn’t good enough to win. Simple. End of story… Incredibly, Thursday night marked five years since Brendan Burke — son of then–Maple Leafs president Brian Burke — was killed in an automobile mishap. I doubt I’ll ever forget hearing the news (Feb. 5, 2010) from Andy Frost during his post–game call–in show on AM–640, which held Leaf broadcast rights at the time. Still working for The FAN–590, I was getting ready to leave for Vancouver and the Winter Olympic Games. Brian Burke was in charge of the United States men’s hockey team and not in a million years did I think he’d be able to carry out the assignment. To his everlasting credit, double–B buried Brendan and somehow dragged his aching soul to western Canada. It remains the bravest and most selfless act of any person with whom I’ve been affiliated in my career… James Reimer will start in goal for the Maple Leafs tonight — seeking his first victory in 11 appearances, dating to a 4–3 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings at Air Canada Centre, Dec. 14. Since then, Reimer is 0–7–0 with three “no decisions.” If he prevails tonight, could Reimer be back in goal tomorrow against the Oilers? Given that interim coach Peter Horachek started Jonathan Bernier on consecutive nights (Jan. 28–29, at New Jersey and home to Arizona), it is a possibility. Given that Bernier flubbed on a 115–foot shot (by Oliver Ekman–Larsson) from the opposite side of centre–ice just five seconds into the third period against the Coyotes, maybe it’s not a possibility… The game–of–the–year to this point in the National Basketball Association goes tonight at Philips Arena in Atlanta with the Hawks (41–9) hosting the Golden State Warriors (39–8). MVP candidate Steph Curry of Golden State is coming off a 51–point gem against Dallas on Wednesday night in Oakland. You’ll need NBA Game Pass in these parts to see the Hawks–Warriors match. “Free” TV (Sportsnet–1) has Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors (7 p.m.) followed by Miami at San Antonio (9:30 p.m.)… It is sad news for the New York Rangers and the entire NHL that goalie Henrik Lundqvist is likely to be out for up to four weeks after taking a shot to the throat last Saturday against Carolina. Lundqvist is among the league’s premier attractions and New York — though eight points up on the second wildcard berth in the East — could struggle to maintain that position. Lundqvist finished the Carolina game and played against Florida on Monday at Madison Square Garden. Subsequent tests, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, revealed a vascular injury that will sideline the Swedish–born goalie. Back–up Cam Talbot got the win (3–2) against Boston on Wednesday at MSG… Leafs No. 1 center Tyler Bozak last scored four weeks ago tonight in the win over Columbus and has just one point — an assist — in the past 10 games… Hang in there, bone–chilled Toronto sports fans. The Blue Jays throw their first pitch–in–anger at spring training in just 25 days — vs. Pittsburgh, at Dunedin, Mar. 3.
HENRIK LUNDQVIST IS TENDED TO AFTER TAKING A SHOT IN THE THROAT AGAINST CAROLINA AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN LAST SATURDAY. JARED SILBER GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
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