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Mike Ulmer's Game Blog vs. Canadiens

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
5:01 p.m.

Morning broke in Leafsland and once again, so did a story.

The Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens at 7:30 tonight. The Habs are a team, in the words of Leafs coach Paul Maurice, whose energy always seems “directed to some sort of event unrelated to the game itself.”

Just like the Leafs.

For the Canadiens, the issue is often linguistic. Saku Koivu’s middling French prompted a mini-firestorm in Montreal where politics and the Canadiens are separated by only the thinnest rule on the front page of the paper.

Koivu, having read the lineup over the Bell Centre video board in French is fine now but here the tempest is over a different type of slight. Rangers’ pest Sean Avery may or many not have taunted Jason Blake over, of all things, his leukemia, Saturday night. Whatever was said was enough to prompt a mini-incident between Darcy Tucker and Avery prior to the game and a fight during the contest.

The league announced fines this afternoon $2,500 for Avery and $1,000 for Tucker

All this was of more than passing interest to journalists from Montreal who to a man left unamused by Avery’s assertion that French players with visors were what amounted to backstabbing cowards.

A number of things make this a strange story. First, there is really no official NHL policy on trash talking. Racial epithets are different. Chris Simon, Craig Berube and Bryan Marchment were suspended for racial slurs in the late 1990s.

But “hope you like your chemo” and “can’t wait until your hair falls out” are ludicrously clumsy insults, especially if used against a flinty customer like Blake.

Avery cited grandparents who he lost to cancer and his involvement in Hockey Fights Cancer in emphatically denying what he is accused of saying.

What makes the story particularly juicy is the troika of characters involved. Avery has cut an arresting figure as perhaps the most hateable hockey opponent since Eddie Shore. He is as much wrestling heel as hockey player.

Tucker, for the longest time, wasn’t far behind. And so when he calls for a lid on what is said on the ice, he must first admit that he too has skidded over the line.

“I’m no angel, I made some mistakes,” he said, “but in talking to other players I made the proper adjustment.”

Which brings us nicely around to the third element. No one is saying what Avery said. The remark was relayed to a Toronto radio reporter by a player in the Rangers dressing room who said he was disgusted by what he heard.

It would be hard, meanwhile, for Blake, meanwhile, to care less. When he describes himself as a player, Blake invariably reaches for the same adjectives he uses when describing Avery.

“I played against Sean quite a bit when he was with the Rangers. He’s a great hockey player and he did a great job for their playoff run.

“He does his role to perfection. That’s what makes Sean Avery Sean Avery.”

Blake said what the league did was of no consequence to him. Besides, he has heard worse “and I’m not even sure he said it.”

There is, after all this, the small matter of the game and a Leafs team that came off a big win in Buffalo and rallied from two goals down to take a point from the Rangers. Naturally, there is another injury, a knee injury to Pavel Kubina that will take him out of the lineup for a month just when he was playing his best hockey.

But the ACC was buzzing 10 hours prior to game time. Makes you wonder what the game will be like.

I will let you know.

Andrew Raycroft gets the start against a talented Montreal team that will bring Carey Price to the nets. The Canadiens have a surplus of budding young stars including defenceman Andrei Markov, Chris Higgins, Michael Komisarek and Michael Ryder.

7:41 p.m.

Bob Gainey was eating in the media lounge before the game and this is one of the wonders of hockey.

Gainey is a Hall of Famer, perhaps the best defensive player of all time and he will stand in line and wait his turn for a go at Chef’s crème of butternut squash soup.

It has been four years since he arrived in Montreal and he has turned the team around nicely. Not nicely enough, though, Leaf fans will point out, to prevent Toronto from eliminating Montreal on the last night of the season. The Leafs were then ousted the next day.

John Pohl is a scratch along with Wade Belak and Chad Kilger, out as a healthy scratch for the first time this season. Pohl is scratched for the third consecutive game.

8:18 p.m.

Jiri Tlusty is one of the most energetic Leafs. He draws a penalty midway thruway the period breaking down the wing. The 20-year-old Carey Price looks as advertised, coolly stopping a close-in shot from Boyd Devereaux. Price looks like he is sitting in his rec room.

He is a wonderous story. Price lived in the B.C interior. From the age of nine to 14, Price would commute from Anahim Lake to Williams Lake. His father, unimpressed with the economics, eventually got his pilot’s licence and got a plane. The plane was described as a lawn mower with wings. At 14, the family moved to Williams Lake. I’m betting Price is one NHLer who doesn’t complain about the rigours of travel.

The Canadiens capitalize on a two-man advantage past a screened Andrew Raycroft. Andrei Markov gets the goal. The period ends with the Leafs holding a 13-11 advantage in shots.

9:11 p.m.

Tlusty makes a lovely play driving the Habs net. Kyle Wellwood lifts his pass over Price and the game is tied two minutes in. Tlusty has been terrific, gaining confidence with every shift.

So, to much the same extent,  has Jason Blake who has veered to the net with a real zeal.

Leafs come up short with a 1:13 two man advantage. Price makes a fine sliding save on Alexei Ponikarovsky. The Leafs know they are dealing with a premium goalie and by my take seem to want to make the perfect pass. The Habs goal in the same situation came from a shot just beyond the circles on a screened Andrew Raycroft.

The Leafs finally convert a power play when Mats Sundin’s hard shot produces a rebound that Wellwood floats over  Price but the Leafs get overrun in their own end and when Alexei Kovalev comes out from behind the net and stuffs the puck at Raycroft, it falls to Andrei Kastsitsyn to roof a shot past Raycroft.

10:13 p.m.

Poor luckless Andrei Markov clears the puck just over the glass and the Leafs have a man advantage. The Leafs have been the better team in the period with Wellwood gifted with the best chance to beat Price.

Best Hab? Mike Komisarek is eliciting comparisons to the bigger name, Scott Stevens types. Price is hilarious without a doubt the most unhurried goalie in memory.

Finally, midway through the period, the Leafs pressure is rewarded when a floater off the stick of Ian White is deftly redirected by Boyd Devereaux. Mark Bell garnered his first point as a Leaf on the play.

Naturally enough, the Habs tie it when Tomas Plekanec carries the puck the length of the ice and feeds to the immensely gifted Alex Kovalev. Whamo.

Six minutes of play solves nothing. Overtime.

Penalties to Saku Koivu and Matt Stajan mean the teams start the overtime three on three. It’s Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov and Bryan McCabe.

Komisarek intercepted a pass from McCabe and dashes the length of the ice to beat Raycroft.

And so, for the second time in as many games, the Leafs settle for a point where two points was there for the taking. This time it’s more galling since they can’t nurse a one-goal lead for the final six minutes of the game.

Alex Kovalev is the Habs first star. Wellwood is the second and Komisarek is star number three.

The Leafs are 1-5 in overtime this season. It’s a point, it just doesn’t feel like one.
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