Toronto is a spectacular city. Full of great people, who take great pride in their town...and its teams, even though when they've hit rock bottom.
Watching TSN from my Bond Place Hotel room the other night, they broadcasted a bit from the MLB Winter Meetings from Lake Buena Vista Florida, (aka The Swan at the Walt Disney World Resorts where I ran into reporters such as Pedro Gomez and Tim Kurkjian while attending a friend's wedding back in 2010) and Steve Phillips was talking about Colby Rasmus as a possible trade candidate to help shore up the Blue Jays' rotation and told the viewers "not to panic." I laughed. Not panic? Why panic about a team who once again is destined to finish in last place even after making splash after splash last winter? You've got to be kidding me!
The same sentiment rolls in with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though you think that the club has taken steps forward, the same club reverts to its old ways. Come to think of it, although I do not follow the NBA or MLS, I do not recall the Raptors or FC Toronto ever being considered as top clubs in their own right. So what is the problem in Toronto? There seems to be no reason that all of its major sports teams to be equally pathetic and never be a part of the conversation when it comes to success, at least recent success. A great city like Toronto deserves better and so do its fans.
Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs and Kings met for the first time since December 19, 2011. After Matt Frattin had tied the game early in the third off a great feed from Mikhail Grabovski, Dustin Brown scored the only goal of the shootout giving the visiting Kings from LA the extra point. Similar to that night, both teams would be engaged in a hard fought deadlock until late in the third period.
Sitting high up at center ice from the 309 section last night, I could see that the Maple Leafs definitely had a step or two on a strong Kings team who had played the night before and had lambasted the Montreal Canadiens 6-0. I did not see that coming, but was very happy to see the game on a big screen tv from my table dining at the Old Spaghetti Factory on The Esplanade talking hockey with several other fans in the restaurant. It is not easy to play at the Bell Centre, knock out Carey Price from goal and cruise to an easy victory. It had been years since the Kings had even won a game in Montreal, and only once before since losing 4 games to 1 in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Yet, Toronto not only went toe to toe against LA Wednesday, they had them on their heels for much of the night.
Martin Jones had stopped Nikolai Kulemin three times point blank early, and both Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk missed several point blank shots at the net from places where they're usually money. But once again, despite the solid start, a bad penalty thanks to Peter Holland way behind the play led to Drew Doughty's PP snipe shot from the right circle that beat Jonathan Bernier high stick side.
So, another solid period, the Leafs find themselves trailing yet again.
Toronto seemed to turn its game up a notch even further in the second period. Frazer McLaren finally dropped his gloves and got into a tussle with Kings tough guy Jordan Nolan. I'd also like to quickly point out the fact that Nolan can hit, fight and even score some goals from time to time. Frazer McLaren has zero points and is a minus player. A stat was shown on the scoreboard that Toronto boasted a 13-3 record when McLaren drops the gloves. It almost came true again.
Jarret Stoll and Doughty each were sent to the penalty box in quick succession after the Maple Leafs had finally started getting a sound cycle going in the mighty Kings zone. On the five-on-three advantage, Phil Kessel faked a shot from the high slot and sent a perfect feed over to Cody Franson on the left side who one-timed it past Jones. Franson's first of the season, after ringing several pucks off the iron the past week or so, gave the Maple Leafs even more life.
Los Angeles is a team, similar to Boston, that is completely unfazed when put into pressure situations. They almost seem to thrive on it and play every game no matter who the opponent is down to the wire. It is like they do it on purpose. They toy with their enemy; and it works, even for a rookie 23-year old netminder who was playing in just his fourth NHL game. After the power play marker to even it up at 1, Jones ended up standing his ground stopping Phil Kessel on a break as he undressed Robyn Regehr, and later somehow kept the puck out while lunging on his side as Joffrey Lupul could not find the handle. Kessel then was stopped again at point blank range later in the period.
With all of the Leafs chances and near misses in the first and second periods, the Kings were lucky to still be even and found themselves in an all too familiar place heading to the third period where they always feel comfortable and confident. And I stress the word CONFIDENT.
When it seems like the Kings (and Bruins for that matter) are on their heels and ready to snap like a twig, they still find a way to beat you. Just like on Sunday evening, it happened again Wednesday night. As Toronto forwards buzzed the LA crease again in the third, raising the shot total up north of 35, all it took was one bad read, a bad pinch and a lost battle along the boards. Jeff Carter led a two on one attack the other way, and fired a low shot between the legs of Bernier who was caught cheating towards the pass to Daniel Carcillo in which Mark Fraser had defended well. Another bad goal at a bad time took all of the momentum out of the building for the Leafs, and soon destroyed altogether as Tyler Toffoli took a loose puck and sent it across the slot to a wide open Kyle Clifford who buried the shot and Toronto 3-1.
Toronto played a better hockey game in my opinion than the mighty Los Angeles Kings, a reigning championship team. But that word comes back again, "confident". Even though the Kings may have been a bit more tired and a step slower, they knew they were going to win somehow. Toronto perhaps thought they had a great chance of winning the game, but "thought" is a lot different from knowing. I really think that is what this game came down to. It was a shame for the Leafs to not have taken two points and criminal for not even taking one point. That part of the blame falls on Bernier who needed to have that shot against Carter. Plain and simple. A night in which Bernier had circled on his calendar since July, knew he had to be 100% totally on his game, and clearly wasn't when he and his teammates needed him to be.
Now, shifting gears a bit to the Los Angeles Kings...
After facing the struggling Ottawa Senators on Saturday, a game in which I hope Ben Scrivens starts, the biggest game of the season for the Kings will come against perhaps the only team that can knock them off in the postseason, the Chicago Blackhawks. Why Scrivens Saturday instead of the hot hand? Simple. If the Kings can see Jones play against the best team, in Chicago and have him lead the Kings to a victory, then this raises a very big question for Darryl Sutter, Dean Lombardi and the rest of the organization. Jonathan Quick's nemesis is Chicago. He cannot beat Chicago, and sure as heck cannot win in Chicago. The 5-4 victory in March late last season should have been much simpler due to Quick giving up goals between the legs as if he could not stop a beachball. Quick has had one great game and one solid game in that building in his career and perhaps that was when the Blackhawks were still in a bit of transition from losing so many key pieces of that impregnable 2010 team; a Chicago team that lost handily to the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round that season.
So with that being said, Jones must get the start in Chicago and Sutter should have him well rested and ready to go on Sunday. If this kid can pull it off once again, Quick may have a little more work to do in order to get his "secured" job back. And he should. NHL players and Hall of Famers especially have always been required to prove themselves over and over again. If Jones can win in Chicago, and do something that Quick has struggled mightily to do over his career, good luck to the rest of the organization in figuring this one out.
Looking forward to going back to Toronto soon! What a town!
A quick note or two about the Leafs in St. Louis tonight...
What will happen on Saturday against Chicago? Get the goalie rotation ready now then. Bernier first period, Reimer second period, Johnny Bower third? What about Eddie? Cujo?
Seriously...the defense was weak tonight. And the forwards forgot that they were playing against an opponent, and a pretty good one at that. Nobody skating. Nobody hitting. Nobody shooting. This looks like the adult league team I played for a few years back. Me in goal, getting peppered, beaten up, playing my rear end off while my guys stand around like pylons in front of me. Some of them falling down like drunken figure skaters and others throwing their sticks around and even trying to knock in pucks towards me. Buzzer mercifully sounds at the end (won't mention some of the scores) and I'm ticked off and throwing things in the locker room after the game and all my teammates could do was laugh.