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Mike Ulmer's Game Day Blog vs. Thrashers

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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7:45 p.m.

Losing is casually discussed but rarely understood outside the circle of pro sports.

Losing is indescribably bad.

Coaches and managers and yes, to an individual degree, players win not because they love to win so much as they hate to lose.

The corrosive effects of losing is far more extreme than the euphoria that comes with winning. Winning just means you don’t have to worry about losing for a while.

Which brings us back to the Maple Leafs who host the 1-7 Atlanta Thrashers. The Leafs have won won three of their nine games. These teams know losing.

The thing about losing is that it intensifies the importance of games. Coming of their 6-4 collapse against Chicago, Saturday night, this is a vital game for the Maple Leafs who have yet to garner any sense of a collective self.

Losing makes injuries, Darcy Tucker with his injured knee is the latest, harder to bear than ever.

Losing makes you wonder about your goalies, your coach, your front office. It guarantees a fruitless search for results, and with it, a little peace..

That’s why no teams in the NHL should player harder than the Leafs and Thrashers tonight. Somehow, one will find a way out of this. In a funny way, it’s a marquee matchup.

8:19 p.m.

So far, so-so. Mats Sundin’s wraparound goal just 13 seconds in gives the locals a lift but a short time later, the Thrashers counter with a goal by Tobias Enstrom who is, by some coincidence, the only player in NHL history so named.

Late in the period, Alex Steen takes a penalty and Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala acrobatically turns back a couple of spectacular chances. This, it seems to me, is a faculty Toskala brings. It is the ability to be heroic, to seem beaten and recover. It is as much about optics as anything. Curtis Joseph is remembered here as a deity, but his statistics were always middling. He did, however, have a knack for being the player most people were talking about when they left the building. I do not know whether that mades him a great goalie. Certainly the numbers provide an impartial arbitration but there is no doubting the value of an air of invincibility, even if the owner is as fallible as the next guy.

Nik Antropov, for my money, is the best Leaf.

Then again, in the last minute,  Ilya Kovalchuk circles inside the Leafs zone and flicks a shot past Toskala that looked imminently stoppable. Man, this guy makes it look easy. Too easy.

9:15 p.m.

Second Period

Now, far be it for me to claim to be prophetic, it’s just that I can see in the future. That’s why tonight’s And Another Thing, free to you on Leafs TV broadband, concerned Leafs defenceman Hal Gill.

Gill drifted into the Thrashers zone and ripped a shot pass Atlanta netminder Johan Hedberg, just like I knew he would.

Gill, like every Leaf, uses a composite stick and on a play like that, you can see why.

I am a conscientious objector, not to Hal Gill who is a very nice individual, but to composite sticks which break in a strong breeze. I counted seven broken sticks in one Leafs game. How great does a stick have to be when you are losing two or three prime scoring chances a game to sticks that self-destruct in 30 seconds.  Sometimes, centre ice looks like a railway trestle.

The manufacturers insist wood sticks broke just as often which I will believe wholeheartedly when I see my first flying pig.

The players, it is said, would mutiny without them so I propose a compromise. When you are defending on a power play, go back to the woodies.

It takes a goal, his seventh of the season by Nik Antropov to make it 3-3 going into the second intermission. Antropov, as I said early, remember the prophetic thing, is again the best Leaf in the second period.

Making his first start of his career, Anton Stralman looks able enough on the Leafs blueline. He played for everyone and even got some power play time in the second. He is in for the stolid Andy Wozniewski.

10:25 p.m.

The Leafs are even par in shots but far ahead in play in the third period.

Sometimes, you can see what is there when you close your eyes to the won-loss record.

In the third period, actually through most of the game,  the club trotted out four defensively competent lines and earned an advantage in chances to boot.

A host of forwards are on board, particularly  Mats Sundin, Chad Kilger, Matt Stajan and Simon Gamache. Then the puck bounces back to Perrin, likely off Ian White, and Perrin wisely slips the puck to Todd White, uncovered in the crease. Bad break and the sense is that surely, the game is lost.

But the Leafs lay siege to the Atlanta net and the puck somehow inches across the Atlanta goalline with 10 seconds left. Alexei Ponikarovsky gets credit and the Leafs get a point.

The Leafs assert themselves with size, there is almost nothing Atlanta could do to move them. It is, for one of the rare times this season, a concrete manifestation of the vision of the team, big, hard-skating and defensively able punctuated with good goaltending.

Antropov chiped in with a goal in the shootout but Vyacheslav Kozlov and the insanely talented Ilya Kovualchuk scored in the shootout. It counts as a tie in the standings and as a loss in the collective memory of everybody at Air Canada Centre.

This is the kind of game you lose when you are in a slump. It’s the kind of game that can give you comfort, all four lines were going, the defence, aside from some rough patches in the first, played well enough and the forwards were conscientious. Often, that kind of effort precludes a win, even a bunch.

But it was a loss, nonetheless, a bunch of good drowned out by bad.

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