TORONTO (Oct. 25) — And now, back to our regularly–scheduled programming.
As the logo and title of this re–designed website suggests, it is mostly about hockey. Problem is, Toronto has been mostly — if not all — about baseball for the past three months. And, who am I to ignore the masses? Now that the Blue Jays are planning for 2016, having come to within two victories of a World Series appearance, the Maple Leafs take center–stage once again. Yes, the same Maple Leafs that are 1–4–2 to start the National Hockey League schedule… with 12 victories in 58 games dating to Dec. 18 of last season.
For some converse (and perverse) perspective, the Montreal Canadiens have 12 wins in their past 14 regular–season games dating to Apr. 2 — and nine consecutively to begin the current schedule. By downing the Leafs, 5–3, at the Bell Centre on Saturday, the Habs became the first team in NHL history to start a season with nine regulation–time conquests. If Montreal puts up another ‘W’ at Vancouver on Tuesday, it will equal the 10–0–0 mark established by the 1993–94 Leafs and the 2006–07 Buffalo Sabres.
We can therefore allege — for the time being, and with full expectation — that the Toronto–Montreal NHL rivalry has been effectively mothballed. How quickly it will re–emerge is anyone’s guess.
From what I’ve seen of the Leafs, they perform energetically most nights with a highly–anticipated lack of finish around the opposition net. That was no misprint in the summary from Saturday — the Buds actually directed 52 shots at Carey Price. Three of them counted. Toronto goaltending is again spotty to begin the season. Though he knew what he signed up for, Mike Babcock must be tugging at his ample coif behind closed doors. Never in his coaching career has he been saddled with so many “who-dats?” Mark Arcobello, Byron Froese, Shawn Matthias, Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington and Martin Marincin are household names in their own homes. Familiar names Tyler Bozak and Jake Gardiner are on injured reserve. How Babcock must dream longingly at night about Nick Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Co.
As one expected, this will be a long, difficult season here in the Big Smoke. What the Maple Leafs and their fans need is a diversion — a hockey “Munenori.” Some wild man from the far east that will score once a year; grab a microphone at ice level and scream, “I’m Japaneeeeeeeese!!” Hard to imagine Brad Boyes, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk or any of the established Leafs acting so disorderly. Nazem Kadri could be the lone hope, with his well–heeled penchant for having fun. Maybe he’ll challenge Randy Carlyle to a Texas Cage wrestling match after a game one night at the Air Canada Centre. No referee. Winner left standing.
The Glendale Cuy–yotes come to town Monday night and Babcock’s goaltending choice will be of interest. We wonder if the coach has looked at a tape of last season’s Arizona at Toronto game (Jan. 29, 2015). If so, he’ll have cringed at a truly bizarre goal by defenseman Oliver Ekman–Larsson. As you may recall, it occurred five seconds after the third–period face–off — won by Lauri Korpikoski (now with Edmonton) against Bozak. The puck went back to Ekman–Larsson, who wristed a shot from 15 feet behind center–ice that somehow dipped beneath the catching glove of Jonathan Bernier. If Babcock has been apprised of the goal (and maybe even if not), it’ll be less–than a shock to see James Reimer between the pipes on Monday.
MORE OF MY PHOTOS OF THE AUTUMN COLORS HERE IN TORONTO.
REMEMBERING JIMMY ROBERTS: One of the most prominent players in the NHL’s early expansion era died of cancer Friday at 75. Toronto native Jimmy Roberts had been scheduled to drop a ceremonial puck before the New York Islanders at St. Louis game Saturday night as the Blues dedicated the match to fighting cancer. Roberts was a key member of the St. Louis teams that played in the Stanley Cup final during the first three seasons of expansion: 1968, 1969 and 1970. He had come to the Blues from Montreal, with which he won the Stanley Cup in 1965, 1966, and then later in his career — 1973, 1976 and 1977.
No one in hockey knew Roberts better than Scotty Bowman, who coached him as a junior in Peterborough from 1958 to 1960; as a pro in St. Louis from October 1967 to December 1970, and in Montreal from 1971–72 to 1976–77. I emailed Bowman asking him to provide a few words about his ex–skater:
“Jimmy was a very versatile and unique player,” Scotty wrote. “He was a defenceman in junior then moved up to right–wing as a pro, though he continued to play some defense for me in St. Louis. He was an excellent defensive forward with a penchant for scoring big goals. In Montreal, he played with Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey to form the top checking–line in the NHL. He was also a great penalty killer. Jimmy was always very popular with teammates because of his work ethic and dependability.”
Roberts played 1,006 regular–season games with the Canadiens and Blues between 1963–64 and 1976–77. He had 126 goals and 194 assists for 320 points. In 153 playoff games, he compiled 20 goals and 36 points.
Condolences to Jimmy’s widow, Judy, and their two daughters.