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Game Day Blog - Leafs vs. Islanders

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Wednesday Practice: : Maurice | Belak | Stralman | Tucker

Thursday Morning Paul Maurice Morning Skate

1:11 p.m. 

Countless roads converge at Air Canada Centre, as the Leafs prepare for tonight’s game against the New York Islanders.

Over in the corner of the Leafs dressing room, Simon Gamache is readying himself for his 37th NHL game. He has accrued countless miles and played in five leagues over two continents. Now, at 26, he has found himself with a glimmer of a chance, a slumping team needs a boost. It’s not much, but players go careers without this kind of an opportunity. He will start with the slumpbound Darcy Tucker and Matt Stajan but that arrangement might only last a shift.

“It’s been a long way, it’s my seventh year,” he said. “I had the taste of NHL, nothing to be really proud to be excited about because I didn’t play a full season.”

He has an exquisite understanding of what is expected of him. Offence.

“I need to bring energy. I have young legs. I have to initiate.”

At centre ice in the pre-game skate, Paul Maurice spends 10 minutes speaking with Kris Newbury. He is a project for Maurice and you will not find two more different personalities in any game in any sport. Maurice’s stubborn insistence on eliminating the foolish penalties once endemic Newbury’s game, is what got Newbury into the league. And the wheel keeps spinning…

If you look long enough you will find a dozen subtexts in what seemed, at first an insignificant game, the fifth of the season, against the New York Islanders.

A few feet away from Gamache, Jason Blake welcomes his friends from New York, his longtime hockey home. They come to say hello, and to commiserate about his announcement of leukemia earlier this week.

Blake is his normal sense, smart and a little wired and it is obvious he misses the camaraderie of people within the Islanders organization, even while he adjusts to a new one.

“The city, everybody has been great around the National Hockey League but it’s nice to get the support of other guys from other teams,” Blake was saying. “The Carolina Hurricanes, during warm-ups, guys came up and patted me on the butt and said ‘we’re with you all the way.’ When you get the support of the whole league and guys in here, it’s just nice to feel that support.

Alexei Ponikarovsky will not play. Ponikarovsky was hit in practice Wednesday and was so sure he would lose time with his injury that he slammed his helmet and gloves to the ice. The word is a bruised left ankle but Ponikarovsky, like the rest of the Leafs forwards, is struggling to find a stride.

Andrew Raycroft, whose up and down fortunes have mirrored that of the teams was, as always, his stoic, wry self. You may quarrel with Andrew Raycroft the goalie, but you would like the kid. He has an incandescent intelligence that radiates through any answer.

“I think we realize that if we had got one more point out of the Islanders or beat them before overtime in one game, then we would have been in the playoffs,” he was telling reporters. “If anything, we have the learning experience that every point counts, whether it’s two now or two in April.”

This is another chance for Raycroft. Vesa Toskala played well in giving up seven goals to Carolina. Raycroft, in a funny way, doesn’t have to play as well. He just has to win.

There is no mistaking the importance of the game. The loss to Carolina was terrifying. The Leafs, for a night, were the team their harshest critics believe they are.

“This is really important for our team confidence,” said Maurice. “Individual confidence comes and goes with a player. Being able to bounce back and feel confident, it’s so important to get that back.”

Morning Line Combinations - as witnessed by Leafs TV's Mark Osborne
LW: Jason Blake         C: Mats Sundin  RW: Alex Steen
LW: Simon Gamache C: Matt Stajan    RW: Darcy Tucker
LW: Boyd Devereaux   C: Nik Antropov RW: John Pohl
LW: Chad Kilger          C: Kris Newbury RW: Wade Belak

Hal GIll                     Ian White
Bryan McCabe        Tomas Kaberle
Andy Wozniewski   Pavel Kubina

G: Andrew Raycroft
G: Vesa Toskala

3:08 p.m.

Tonight, the Leafs return Bryan McCabe with his usual defencemate, Tom Kaberle.

McCabe’s, like Kaberle and pretty well everyone else on the blue line, has not distinguished himself this season.

Naturally, the Leafs need their big pairing to assert itself defensively. He is also looking for composure. Skilled players keep the puck in your zone. It’s a fact of life but when asked whether McCabe or Darcy Tucker was sagging under the weight of new contracts, (McCabe signed his better than a year ago), the Leafs coach gave an interesting answer.

“I don’t think that Darcy does because I don’t think his game has changed a whole lot,” he said.

“I think there is bigger weight on a defenceman because when you get into the higher dollar numbers it is almost always based on some offensive numbers. There aren’t a lot of defensive defencemen who get big contracts because their numbers don’t support it. The players who get the bigger contracts feel the pressure to produce those numbers more regularly and that happens to defenceman more often.”

6:28 p.m.

Love to stay and chat but got to run. I am appearing on Leafs Nation Pre-Game show with a scintillating expose on Swedes. Turns out they’re nice guys. All of them.

Watch Ulmer's rant

7:32 p.m.

Just another few moments of fame on the set of Leafs Nation Pre-Game with Jody Vance. Ever have a moment when something just clicks. We sat there for four minutes telling stories about our affection for Mats Sundin and all things Swedish. Jody looks like she is ready to patent pregnancy and Osborne lent me his tie, good lad that he is. Left mine on the kitchen table, same place I kept my homework through high school.

Homework is one of the bitter surprises of parenthood. Thanks to the need for teacher preparation time, today’s parents fill in the blanks instructors can’t get to. That represents a goodly amount of the government mandated lead-heavy curriculum. I don’t remember how much money I have in the bank or my mother’s birthday. Do not ask me to remember calculus I did not understand when I first flunked it 30 years ago. But I digress.

8:18 p.m.

The Leafs get the start they need. Alex Steen draws a penalty and on the ensuing power play, Nik Antropov deflects a Pavel Kubina shot past Wade Dubielewicz who is in for star goalie Rick DiPietro. From the just as big news department, Darcy Tucker, unaccountably out of sync all season, is skating better than he has in the first four games. He nets a point, his first.

Ian White scores eight minutes into the period with a perfectly stoppable point shot that Dubielewicz misplayed. Calling Mr. DiPietro. Mr. Rick DiPietro. Tucker gets another point.

Mike Comrie takes another Islander penalty, this one for tripping Steen who is playing marvelously. Comrie is dating Hillary Duff, don’t you know. Yeah, that would have happened had he stayed in Edmonton.

This game is being refereed by Mike Hasenfratz, of the well known Milwaukee family business Hasenfratz Incorporated.

On an Islander power play, Hal Gill’s stick breaks. Earlier in the game, Jason Blake’s excellent scoring chance evaporated when his stick exploded. Will someone explain to me how a high-tech stick improves your game if it takes away scoring chances and opportunities to clear.

Wade Belak’s roughing penalty eventually leads to a goal through a maze of players past Raycroft in the Leafs net. Score it 2-1 on the goal by Ruslan Fedotenko.

Another Leafs power play, another great chance, another exploding stick, this one in the hands of Steen. This is a recording. That’s two possible goals, whisked away through the awesome power of technology.

9:05 p.m.

Look, there is nothing funny about bi-polar disorder, but couldn’t they have medicated the person who designed the Islanders new uniforms before throwing him the keys?

Playing four on four, Jason Blake delivers an absolutely jaw dropping pass to Tom Kaberle. Nicest play of the year. Kaberle stickhandles past Dubielewicz. Leafs lead 3-1.

The assist makes Sundin the all-time leader in Leaf points, the crowd explodes into noise, chanting “Sun-din, Sun-din.”

They quiet down to watch the play as Nik Antropov breaks his stick,  number four on the night for the Leafs.  The video montage of Sundin prompts another ovation. Nice stuff. The great man raises his stick to the crowd. The game goes on, just as he wants it to.

Simon Gamache takes an interference penalty. He is from Thedford Mines and he played last year in Bern. He isn’t going back to either. He would light his uniform on fire to catch Maurice’s eye and he looks pretty good, skillful, resourceful and speedy. He’s Steve Sullivan without the height.

Matt Stajan takes a thinking man’s pass from Pavel Kubina and beats the Islanders’ goalie whose first name is Wade from a tough angle with the Leafs a man down. DiPietro does not move on the bench. Nor does he budge when Alex Steen scores on a breakaway to make it 5-1. Much happiness here.

10:18 p.m.

The Leafs make it 6-1 on a study of team dynamics. Boyd Devereaux enjoys a checker’s shift for the ages, disrupting the puck flow in the Islanders’ end, tangling with puckhandlers around centre. He flicks a puck away an instant before an uncovered Islander can dunk it past Raycroft. Devereaux skates to the bench, the Leafs advance the puck into the Islanders end and Andy Wozniewski chops home his first NHL marker. No point for Devereaux whose diligent work made it all happen.

How tough is the NHL. After review, they take away Sundin’s assist. I mean honestly, it’s a second assist. Let the guy have his point. I came this close to crying when they played that blasted video. I wish I could use video review in my life. “After consulting with officials, take away the “I should have given you up at birth” remark originally credited to Dad and replace it with “of course, darling, here are the car keys.” Also please disregard the following spousal remark: “you know, Honey, our new neighbour Shirley is kind of hot.”

The 50/50 draw nets someone $5,028. Rats. Lost again. Next time, I buy a ticket.

It just got sweeter. Sundin breaks his record the way it should be broken, with a goal. This time, there is no video to drown out the ovation. Sundin wipes away tears.

Interesting code at play here. In baseball, when a great player is recognized, the opposing players join in. Not so in hockey, where the Islanders sat glued to their bench.

Broken stick number five for the Leafs, Antropov.

Gamache beats the luckless Dubie with a perfect rising shot. The Isles goalie did not move. Rick DiPietro, please take the rest of the night off. Good for the kid.

And so it ends, 8-1 and all the agony of the loss to Carolina has passed. The Islanders, at 3-1-1 entering the game where a respectable opponent. The last word, as always, goes to Paul Maurice who hit it on the head a few hours earlier at his press conference.

“Winning,” he said, “fixes everything.”

As for Sundin, he is named the game's third, second and first star. For the Maple Leafs and their fans, things cannot be better. They start selling tickets for the rollercoaster again Friday morning.
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