With one goal absorbing the mind-set of an entire team, the Toronto Maple Leafs rolled into the Motor City on a quest to keep pace within their current Eastern Conference Playoff dash. As the Buffalo Sabres, and Carolina Hurricanes regained ground with victories on Friday and with both teams in action tonight, the task at hand once again became vital to the post-season life of the 2010-2011 Maple Leafs. Not since the Norris Division days, when the Leafs and Red Wings battled for the Western Conference, has a game between the two teams depicted such meaning. The stakes for the Maple Leafs however, were blessed in the form of a banged up Detroit lineup. The glaring holes left by injuries to the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, bode well for the Leafs, who come into Motown riding a hot goaltender, in James Reimer. Although still glaring up ice at a very good team filled with talent, the young netminder must have seen the missing stars as an advantage, although not quick to tip his hand, prior to the Original Six meeting on Hockey Night in Canada.
“You respect this place, the team and the building”, Reimer said. “They have won a lot of championships and have a had a lot of good players come through here. It’s a building where you walk in and feel that. They have a heck of a team.”
The buzzing atmosphere in the building was indeed felt early in the first period and with the Red Wings predictably controlling most of the play. Their initial puck possession would pressure the Leafs and eventually draw a hooking penalty to Joey Crabb. Looking to build their powerplay goal streak to 7 games, the Red Wings went to work with the man advantage. A poised and patient Henrik Zetterberg would make no mistake with a backhand through the slot, to beat James Reimer for the 1-0 lead. The powerplay goal seemed to lift the Leafs, who were tentative early, but answered back with a few solid shifts. With their tempo turned up a notch, the Leafs drew a penalty of their own and although unable to score with the extra man, managed to pick up their game. Scoring late in the first period, the Leafs tied the game with a nice shot from Nazem Kadri, who went upstairs on Red Wing goaltender Jimmy Howard for his second career NHL goal. The goal although late, would send the Leafs into the first intermission on a high-note.
The second period saw the Leafs build on their momentum early, and a strong forecheck would see them on the powerplay once again. The speed of the Leaf’s game picked up, creating a slew of chances, yet unable to grab the go ahead goal. The missed opportunities for the Leafs would come back to bite them quickly. Standing still in the neutral zone, Joffrey Lupul hooked a streaking Mike Modano, and the Red Wing’s powerplay would strike again. With Tomas Holmstrom wreaking havoc in front of James Reimer, a Nik Kronwall shot would deflect off the big Swede and past Reimer for the 2-1 lead. The two teams would exchange hostilities following a Darryl Boyce hit on Bryan Rafalski. With Rafalski slow to his feet, Justin Abdelkader would come to his rescue and he and Boyce each received 5 minute fighting majors. When play resumed, the Leafs would receive another chance to correct their powerplay woes. With Darren Helm in the box for tripping, a Dion Phaneuf shoot in would see the second period come to a twisting end. The blast from the Leaf Captain managed to crack the glass, and with 2 minutes remaining, the officials elected to halt the period, adding to the clock for the third period.
The third period got under way in an awkward fashion and lead to an exciting final frame. After a dreadful night on the powerplay, the Leafs began to force the issue and sparked their tying goal. With Dion Phaneuf pinching down low, he would find Phil Kessel in the slot. Kessel snapped the puck and with Jimmy Howard sprawling to the ice, Joffrey Lupul would crash on top of him and managed to find the back of the net from the seat of his pants. The controversial play ended the night for Howard with a shoulder injury and spelled a goalie change for Detroit. A cold Joey MacDonald wouldn’t effect the Red Wing’s result, as their defensive game tightened and the Leafs continued to struggle with turnovers. Jiri Hudler capitalized on the Leaf’s mistakes and beat James Reimer from an angle the Leaf’s goaltender would surely like to have back. With the Leafs well aware of out of town scoreboard, the go ahead goal was deflating and forced Head Coach Ron Wilson to pull Reimer for the extra attacker. With a flurry of action, the Leafs were unable to pull off any late magic and saw their Playoff hopes sputter with Todd Bertuzzi scoring on the empty 4×6 for the 4-2 Red Wing victory.
The Leafs came into tonight’s game with their knowledge full well of what was riding on the line. Needing a Buffalo Sabre loss and a win of their own, the Leaf’s fate was that of a crushing worst case scenario. A 2-0 Sabre win over the New Jersey Devils, coupled with the Leaf loss increased the gap to 7 points for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. The margin virtually eliminates a post season chance for the Maple Leafs, and puts a damper on an exciting run of optimism. Surely thrilled with his team’s effort and improvement along the way, Head Coach Ron Wilson wasn’t about to throw in the towel with his comments after the game.
“No, it is a hell of a trip”, Wilson said, Referring to the recent Western road trip his team has finished. “There’s still plenty of time, and we just have to go back home and regroup…keep playing the way that we are.”
For the Leaf’s however, time is not enough. Beyond their own play, some help from other teams has been necessary, something the Leafs haven’t received in a few weeks now. From this point on the victories become morale, while pointing to and reflecting a resurgence among a core group of players. Perhaps externally, the late season race seems visibly similar to that of years past, but a growth process is taking place and gives reason for the optimism to become greater for Leaf’s Nation. A strong finish can only help this team for the future, and given their effort in 2011, missing the post season should not hurt it.
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!