Sports And The City

It was 4-1.

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Bizarro world

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I’m still reeling over what happened Tuesday night out in Silicon Valley. The turn of events that led to the Maple Leafs defeating the Sharks were unprecedented. As George Costanza would put it: There was no precedent, baby!

Think about it. First and foremost: James Reimer. James motherfucking Reimer. The keeper who’s come out of nowhere and swept a hockey-mad city, one that wants nothing more than replacement-level goaltending, off its feet. Through two periods, Reimer had stopped 33 of 34 shots, including all 21 he faced in the second period. With Toronto trailing 1-0, Reimer was doing what goalie after goalie after goalie had failed to do so for the Maple Leafs since the goddamn lockout ended years ago: keep his team in the game.

In the second period, the Maple Leafs killed five San Jose power plays, including a short two-man advantage, and one four-on-three advantage. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, coached by Ron Wilson and, among others, Keith Acton. Five power plays. In one period. In one game. I celebrated with drink. Reimer, of course, was a big part of the effort. And one of the penalties, the final one to Francois Beauchemin, was complete bullshit, a retaliation call after he was dangerously tripped by Devin Setoguchi in a race to the puck.

When trailing after two periods, Toronto’s record was 1-17-2. But they came out in the third period with a purpose. You know, to win. To not waste the solid effort from their rookie between the pipes. And it was Phil Kessel, of course, who tied the game at ones. His goal, number 19 on the season, good enough for eighth in the NHL, was a dazzling display of skill and patience, as if to justify Kessel’s selection for the all-star game.

Four minutes later, Toronto’s power play struck. Clarke MacArthur’s backhand found the net, after a beautiful pass from — who else? — Tomas Kaberle. And that power play, which couldn’t buy a goal early in the season, is now top-10 in the league, rolling at 18.9%. Ben Eager’s thank you card is in the mail.

A minute later, San Jose tied the game. Typical. Surely the Leafs, in the second of back-to-back games, would fold. But they didn’t. Cue more bizzaro happenings.

Like defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, for some reason skating by the front of the San Jose net, deflecting a Dion Phaneuf shot from the point past Antti Niemi. It was only the eighth goal scored by a Maple Leafs defenceman all year, and would eventually be only the second game-winning goal courtesy the back end. The point is: Maple Leafs defencemen don’t score. Especially not on the road in a 2-2 game in the third period.

Could the Leafs hold on? Again? Just as they did the night before in Los Angeles? If there was any doubt, Dion Phaneuf erased it by almost ending the life of Dany Heatley as he skated into the Toronto zone. Phaneuf clocked him. It was the finest hit I’d seen Dion throw as a Maple Leaf. The bodycheck I’d been waiting for.

Reimer shut the door, of course. Just like he did in Los Angeles. He stopped seven of eight shots in the third period. The Leafs won important faceoffs in their own zone, and iced the game thanks to another MacArthur goal, this time into an empty net, which, let’s be honest, is just as intimidating as Niemi. Four wins in a row. Five straight victories on the road. Likely the apex of 2010/2011 Toronto Maple Leafs fandom.

In the end, Ron Wilson had victory number 600 in his back pocket, becoming only the seventh coach in history to reach the milestone. And it came against his former team. I won’t lie: Based on Wilson’s time in Toronto, I was still in disbelief he’d won 599 games before Tuesday night. But it’s not too late for Wilson. Should the Leafs turn it around, Ron may get his own statue yet. (Looking smug, of course.)

The power play’s working. There’s a guy in the crease playing as big as his six-foot-two frame. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail “Mickey Grabs” Grabovski, Kris Versteeg, Kessel and MacArthur are all on pace to have career offensive seasons. Luke Schenn has found his game. Kaberle is reborn. The penalty kill, the useless goddamn penalty kill, hasn’t allowed a goal on the road trip. It’s 10-for-10. It’s creeping towards an 80% success rate, and respectability. Believe it or not, after the bizarro Leafs assured themselves of a winning road trip (!) Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Wilson hasn’t been given enough credit.

While I’m doubtful Toronto Maple Leafs hockey can get much better than it was on Tuesday, all I ask is that there be no return to regularly scheduled programming. Fuck losing. And poor goaltending. They’re both bloody exhausting.

Image of a beaming Clarke MacArthur courtesy of Reuters via daylife.

Two wins in a row is a streak

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I wasn’t happy when Nazem Kadri was called up to the Maple Leafs. Too soon, I said. The Damien Cox in me thought: “There goes another prospect.” Only a week later, I’ve done a complete one-eighty, and am mighty pleased with the promotion. There’s no way he’s going back. It’s obvious to any observer that Kadri is a point-per-game NHL performer, and will be for the rest of his illustrious career.

Kadri’s got vision; kid can pass. Phil Kessel and — especially — Kris Versteeg would surely agree. And Kadri’s playing his game. He’s confident. He’s trying to dangle around defenceman in the offensive zone. I like it. I like his attitude. Mike Richards probably doesn’t, but, really, who cares what Mike Richards thinks?

Now, I’m no Ron Wilson fan. I’m a hater, actually, and, well, I hate. But credit where credit’s due. Wilson’s playing Kadri. He’s got him out there with Kessel, on the top line, averaging 19:21 a game. Wilson’s giving Kadri every opportunity to succeed. And wouldn’t it be nice for young Nazem, after three assists in his first three games, to score his first career NHL goal in Montreal Saturday night, against the Habs? Yes, that would be nice. I’d like that very much. It’d let Habs fans know what’s in store for, oh, I don’t know, the next 15-to-17 years.

We all know who else played exceptionally well for the Leafs Thursday night: Mikhail Grabovski, who’s on a tear, and who I so very badly want to see succeed here in Toronto, and Kris Versteeg. Isn’t it awfully nice of Versteeg to finally join us? I think so too. And, of course, Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto’s new number one goalie. I don’t think J.S. Giguere gets his job back when he returns. Frankly, I don’t think he deserves it. And I think ¬†Giguere’s had it pretty easy in the media so far this season, especially considering how much he talked during The Great Losing Streak of 2010. I know, I know, the Leafs can’t score. But the bottom line is that Giguere’s .895 save percentage simply isn’t good enough.

The Giguere/Gustavsson situation parallels the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays; John Buck and J.P. Arencibia, Lyle Overbay and Adam Lind. It’s no secret that Giguere, making a ton of money this season, won’t be back in 2011/2012. He isn’t part of the plan, so he doesn’t need to play. Especially not the majority of games. Gustavsson has been by leaps and bounds the better goalie five-on-five so far this season, his .933 save percentage shining much brighter than Giguere’s .905. While J.S. does have the edge in save percentage on the penalty kill, .846 to .769, the majority of the game is played at even-strength. It’s a no-brainer. It’s time to see what The Monster is made of. WilsonCity just doesn’t have the same ring to it as CitoCity, does it?

As for the New Jersey Devils, for the first time since I can remember, I don’t recognize them.

Image, one I can definitely get used to, courtesy of Reuters via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 19th, 2010 at 3:31 am