What the Blackhawks have done the last 10 games in the Western Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs have done in the East. With who’s-THIS-fucking-guy goaltender James Reimer between the pipes, the Leafs have surged to a 6-1-3 record over their last ten games. After having been written off for another year by pretty much everyone as recently as the All-Star Break, they are now within 4 points of a playoff spot.
Tonight the Leafs play host to the similarly-resurgent Chicago Blackhawks, setting up a Clash of the Titans in the NHL’s broadcast media Coliseum: an Original-Six matchup on CBC’s Saturday night edition of Hockey Night in Canada. The only thing that would make this more perfect is if it were at Maple Leaf Gardens. But alas, time marches on.
Goaltending has been the missing piece of the puzzle in Toronto for some time. Okay, let’s be honest: it’s one of the missing pieces, along with forwards, defense, coaching, management and ownership. But let’s not be nit-picky. Over the last 3 seasons the list of goaltenders to play at least one game for the Maple Leafs — and turn out to be a complete disappointment — include J-S Giguere, Olaf Kolzig, Martin Gerber, Vesa Toskala and (yes, I’m serious) Curtis Joseph.
Reimer was hovering in the minor leagues during those years, earning his stripes and not really impressing anybody. He had several call-ups during that time, but mainly to provide insurance in the event of an injury to the guy playing the game. Well, all of a sudden, the Leafs had to file a claim on that policy: sophomore Swede Jonas Gustavsson required heart surgery, and finally Reimer got his first NHL start.
12 wins, 4 losses and 3 OTL’s later, he is being watched with the cynical optimism typical of the Toronto media: eager to ride the wave while it lasts, but keeping the “I told you so” option open in the event that he blows the big game that costs the Leafs their spot in the playoffs. Regardless of what the media says about him, he’s playing fantastic hockey at the moment, and will not be a pushover this evening.
The Maple Leafs’ offense is clustered, but that cluster is potent and dangerous. Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin are all in or about to enter the 20-goal, 50-point club: from there it’s a significant drop-off to Tyler Bozak with 10 goals and 14 helpers. So controlling the top-four will be the key to keeping the Leafs off the score sheet.
Captain Dion Phaneuf and talented youngster Luke Schenn anchor a defensive corps, the others comprised of two stay-at-home workhorses and two inexperienced youngsters. Plus-minus numbers are not impressive, but improving with the Leafs’ goaltending upgrade. Phaneuf, for instance, is minus-five on the year — but plus-2 in his last 10 games.
The biggest winner in all this (other than James Reimer’s agent) may be Head Coach Ron Wilson. Any coach in Toronto is pilloried by the press 24/7 from the day they are hired, and Wilson has taken more than his fair share. Rumors were flying that if the Leafs missed the playoffs this season, Wilson was history. This upstart netminder might just have bought Wilson another year behind the bench for the Leafs.
Once again, the picture looks rosy for Chicago. A seven-game win streak will buoy anyone’s spirits, but it’s the way we’re winning that is the real story. Captain Jonathan Toews is playing with a balls-out confidence that makes most team captains look like Ralph Malph. Our top line is cranking in goals almost at will. We are getting regular, substantive scoring contributions from the second and third lines every game. Defensemen Nick Leddy and Chris Campoli are turning out to be excellent additions to our blue line core. And rookie goaltender Corey Crawford continues to impress with each game, going 8-1-0 over his last 9 starts.
As an aside, Edmonton Oilers’ rookie phenom Taylor Hall was considered to be one of the front-runners for the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year. Well, Hall just went down with an ankle injury that will require 8 weeks to heal, effectively taking him out of the running. With Crawford’s exceptional play the last two months, he is now being considered a legitimate contender for this award by the hockey press. I admit, I thought the Calder talk was certain Chicago sports writers inventing something to get excited about a month ago. Now, it seems more than just wishful thinking.
Triage: the Maple Leafs are without the services of Colton Orr and the afore-mentioned Gustavsson, both out for the season. The Blackhawks are all “officially” healthy, but expect John Scott and Fernando Pisani to be scratched again this evening. The latest lineup has been rocking it hard, and only an idiot would mess with this kind of success.
6:00pm puck drop Chicago time. Canadian viewers will see the game live, coast-to-coast, on the CBC’s flagship program and most-loved hockey broadcast world-wide, Hockey Night In Canada. Enjoy what Don Cherry has to say during intermission, the mouthy old fart-blossom. Chicago viewers will catch the action on WGN TV, broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers can hear the game on channel 204.
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