Tonight, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs will be afforded their last up-close look as the Leafs host the Philadelphia Flyers in their 41st and final home game.
The Leafs, of course, are officially eliminated from the post season. The Flyers hold a two-point bulge over the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs play road games in New York on Wednesday and then close the season in Montreal on Saturday.
When Cliff Fletcher assumed control of the Leafs a little more than two years ago, there were 23 players on the roster. One, Tomas Kaberle, remains and central to the rebuild has been the acquisition of Swedish players.
Goalie Jonas Gustavsson
, utility forward Fredrik Sjostrom, defenceman Carl Gunnarsson
, speedy winger Viktor Stalberg and defensive centreman Rickard Wallin each enjoyed their first season as Maple Leafs.
Wallin is closest to the bubble. Accomplished on the defensive side of the puck, he scored only two goals. Sjostrom’s speed will make him welcome on the penalty kill. Stalberg is an intriguing prospect; he has scored eight goals in 37 games and boasts elite speed. Gunnarsson has been a find, a 23-year-old with an effortless, economical style who led the team with a plus 11. Gustavsson, a restricted free agent, looks like the goalie the Leafs have been looking for over the last decade.
Talk to each man and you understand the value of wearing a Leafs sweater.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I will always be proud to wear the Leafs jersey,” said Wallin who is finishing out a one-year contract.
“It’s been a great honor. I hope I can come back and still be a part of it, but no matter what happens I will always be proud I was able to sit in this dressing room and play in front of these fans.”
The mindset of Swedish icon Mats Sundin, criticized for not submitting to a trade, is understood among Swedes.
“I think we have a mentality, the team you get from the start is the one you want to be with. You want to go as far as possible with that team,” Gunnarsson said. “That’s where your heart is.”
“We are part of the youth movement and hopefully we will be here for a while,” Stalberg said. “It’s exciting. You want to play hockey in a city like this and be a part of something new. We want to turn this team around and start being a contender. That would be the best feeling ever.”
“I’ve really enjoyed my year here as I’ve gotten to know people,” said Gustavsson. “Not just the players, but people around the rink, the Zamboni driver, everybody."
“I think we have the chance to build a very good team here.”
The Leafs may be without Phil Kessel
. Kessel hurt something, the Leafs aren’t saying what, in this weekend’s overtime loss to Boston. Look for Brian Boucher 7-13-3 with 2.89 goals against and .896 save percentage to be in net for the Flyers.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere 9-14-7, 2.90, .905 will take his turn in the Leafs net.
Gustavsson was named the nominee for the Masterton Trophy for perseverance. The award is voted on by local writers.
Now that Garnet Exelby has scored, the only players on the Leafs roster who are goalless are Christian Hanson (no goals in 28 games) and Brayden Irwin (scoreless in two contests).
The injury-ravaged Flyers have three wins in their last 10 games. The Leafs, meanwhile, are 6-2-2.