BUFFALO (Dec. 19) — In my blog here on Friday, I posed a rhetorical question: Under what pretext could Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock turn to the beleaguered Jonathan Bernier for another start in goal?
The obvious answer: None.
Somehow, I forgot to consider the potential for injury, which opened a steel vault for Bernier in the first period of Thursday night’s match against San Jose at the Air Canada Centre. Rookie Garret Sparks incurred a leg injury while fanning on a shot by Patrick Marleau that gave the Sharks an early 2–0 lead. Sparks ambled toward the Maple Leafs bench — not to be seen again. Bernier, with no opportunity to evoke dread, entered the game and functioned adequately for the balance of a 5–4 overtime defeat. By his 2015 standard, it was a Vezina Trophy–caliber performance and somewhat over–hyped by TSN’s ice–level color–man Jamie McLennan (being a one–time National Hockey League goalie, himself, we’ll forgive “Noodles”).
With Sparks out of action “long–term” (according to Babcock) and James Reimer still nursing a sore groin, the Leafs coach is now in the unenviable position of having no choice but to deploy Bernier against Los Angeles later tonight. There was no tip–toeing in a Toronto Sun website headline on Friday: INJURIES FORCE LEAFS TO KEEP PLAYING JONATHAN BERNIER. In a different time, this would have been a no–brainer — eagerly anticipated by the coach; the goalie, and fans of the Blue and White. Having been peddled east by the Kings 2½ years ago, Bernier would encounter the club with whom he shared Stanley Cup glory in 2012; a team coming to town off a 3–0 victory at Montreal, and with a sparkling 7–1–2 mark in its past ten games.
The stuff of dreams.
With the better part of 48 hours to mull over the L.A. assignment, Bernier could be a basket–case by the time the puck drops at 7:15 p.m. We’d like to think more highly of the presumptive No. 1 stopper, but he’s proven rather insubstantial for an entire calendar year. In fact, Friday was the one–year anniversary of the night it all began to unravel for the 2014–15 Maple Leafs, who swaggered into Raleigh, N.C. on Dec. 18 riding an improbable 10–1–1 streak. A 4–1 loss to the bedraggled Hurricanes began a 4–22–2 torpedo–shot that effectively destroyed the coaching careers of Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek. Between Dec. 18 of last winter and today, the Leafs have played 81 games with a record of 21–48–12. Or, 21 wins and 60 losses.
On the flip side, had we suggested before this season that the Leafs would be deadlocked in points with Anaheim one week prior to Christmas, Toronto fans would have been incredulous. Alas, it has happened, but not as planned for the doddering Ducks, who were blanked, 3–0, here in Buffalo on Thursday. Anaheim is dead–last in the Western Conference at 11–14–5 for 27 points, and has scored a malodorous 56 goals in 30 games. The Leafs are 10–13–7 — also for 27 points — and with the fewest wins in the NHL.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve trekked here (with my son, Shane) for this afternoon’s encounter between the Sabres and defending Stanley Cup–champion Chicago Blackhawks — a first opportunity to see Jack Eichel in action and always a treat to watch Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Co. It is Kane’s first time back in his home city since allegations of sexual misconduct from last summer; charges against him were dropped by the Erie County District Attorney, Nov. 5, for lack of evidence. Here’s hoping the passionate, respectful hockey fans in the Queen City remain that way during the Chicago visit.
Some shameless fun today looking at my early scribbling career:
THIS PRE–SEASON HOCKEY PUBLICATION HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE THE MID–1990’s AND WAS INITIALLY SPONSORED BY MY EX–EMPLOYER, THE FAN–590. IN THE SUMMER OF 1996, I WAS ASKED TO WRITE A STORY FOR THE MAGAZINE ABOUT TRAVELING TO COVER THE MAPLE LEAFS.
YOURS TRULY (ABOVE) AND DAMIEN COX (BELOW) IN OUR YOUNGER DAYS.
THIS IS THE FIRST ARTICLE I EVER HAD PUBLISHED IN A HOCKEY MAGAZINE… AS I DISCOVERED ONCE IT WAS ON NEWS–STANDS. IN SEPTEMBER 1981 — AND ON A WHIM — I INTERVIEWED CENTER BILL DERLAGO OF THE LEAFS; WROTE A STORY, AND MAILED IT TO NORMAN MacLEAN, EDITOR OF HOCKEY ILLUSTRATED. WHEN I DIDN’T HEAR BACK IN A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF TIME, I FIGURED NORM WASN’T INTERESTED. THEN I SAW THE NOVEMBER ’81 EDITION (ABOVE) IN A STORE AND COULDN’T BELIEVE MY LOUSY FORTUNE — THAT SOMEONE ELSE HAD WRITTEN ABOUT DERLAGO. YOU CAN IMAGINE MY SURPRISE UPON OPENING THE MAGAZINE AND DISCOVERING THE AUTHOR (BELOW). I CALLED NORM AND HE SAID, “I OWE YOU 150 BUCKS.” I’M STILL AWAITING THE CHECK.
NOT LONG AFTERWARD, I BEGAN CONTRIBUTING TO GOAL (ABOVE) — THEN, THE OFFICIAL MAGAZINE OF THE NHL. SOMEHOW, I IMPRESSED THE EDITORS ENOUGH FOR THEM TO FEATURE ME (BELOW) EARLY IN THE 1982–83 SEASON.
YES, RONNIE “FRANCHISE” WAS INDEED AN UP–AND–COMER.