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Bright Spots of the Year

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
When I was a kid, there was a cute little dump across the street named the Rendezvous Grill.

The owner had his own matches made up. It said, and I paraphrase:

“We have been flooded, burned out, rained on and pelted by high winds. We have been cursed, robbed and hit by lightning. We have had tornadoes, hail, and hurricanes. In fact, the only reason we are staying in business is to find out what the hell is going to happen next.”

Which brings us perfectly to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After 38 games, the Leafs sit at .500 thanks to a record of 15-15-8. They are a point out of eighth, four points from fourth and five points removed from the cellar.

Five hundred. It’s like the kid who arrives at the ballpark in the fifth, sees there is no score and says ‘great, haven’t missed anything.”

As if.

After the Leafs acquired centre Mark Bell, the NHL decided to impose further punishment on Bell for a drunken driving episode and suspend him for 15 games. Few if anyone, saw such a lengthy suspension coming, not even Bell who nonetheless refused complaint and served his time.

Carlo Colaiacovo thought to be nearly rehabbed and a top six defender had complications and didn’t get back into the lineup until Christmas.

Jason Blake announced he was undergoing treatment for a highly treatable form of leukemia.

The Leafs developed a horrible habit of losing late. Their record of 2-8 after 60 minutes is the league’s worst and bordered on the bizarre. Meanwhile, every game tightened as the Leafs power play evaporated.

Bryan McCabe put a puck into his own net to end overtime in Buffalo. Imagine the Spanish Inquisition, only nastier.

No, it has been a .500 season like no other.

Some bright spots.

1. The wonderous play of Mats Sundin. Sundin (17 goals, 43 points) once again leads the Leafs in scoring. Sundin turns 37 in February. Isn’t he getting a little old for this?

2. The flowering of Nik Antropov (15 goals, 35 points). In his eighth season with the club, Antropov has reached the headiest projections. His combination of size, reach and hand skills make him a threat whenever he touches the ice.

3. Tomas Kaberle (six goals, 26 points). No matter who he plays with, Kaberle’s game is the same, silky smooth and efficient.

4. Hal Gill. Maybe it takes a year of getting used to him, but Gill has distinguished himself with steadfast defensive play this year. The combination of Gill and Ian White was often the Leafs soundest defensive unit.

5. Vesa Toskala. After earning his spurs in the early going, Toskala was terrific through much of November and nearly all of December. A groin injury at Christmas loomed as a potential headache.

6. The minute eaters, Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe. When you think about it, they are virtually identical. Kubina is a bit steadier defensively. McCabe brings more offence. Give either one 30 minutes, and they transform into pretty effective work horses.

Some disappointments.

1. Jason Blake. Has outshot Chad Kilger, 155-43. Has five goals, two fewer than Kilger.

2. Mark Bell. Never found his groove after early season suspension. Bell has only two goals, not enough for a front liner no matter how defensively conscientious.

3. Darcy Tucker. Tucker has scored three times and is in the great quandary. His offense doesn’t justify more ice time but he can’t be expected to score more without more ice time and time on the power play.

4. John Pohl. Disappeared.

5. Kyle Wellwood. See John Pohl.

Some memorable events:

1. “Oh yeah, that’s why we signed this guy.”
Dany Heatley signs a $45 million extension and then scores in overtime as the Sens beat the Leafs 4-3 on opening night.

2. “Three Star General”
Mats Sundin records his 390th goal and 917th point as a Leaf to set a new club record as the Leafs hammer the Islanders 8-1 on October 11. He is named the game’s first, second and third star.

3. “I’m starting to like this guy.”
Toskala earns his first shutout as the Leafs whitewash the Senators 2-0, November 17.  McCabe, vilified after his gaffe in Buffalo and a giveaway that leads to the winning goal in Montreal, savors first-star status.

4. “Even more now.”
Toskala gains his second shutout of the season December 14 as the Leafs hammer Atlanta 4-0. He was 6-1 in his last seven.”

5. “Now this is just silly.”
Kubina’s one-piece non-wood, zero wood product, stick that behaves suspiciously like a piñata, explodes in the dying moments in Tampa Bay. The puck ended up on the stick of Vincent Lecavalier with 42 seconds left and you know how that turned out.
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