December 8, 2003.(TORONTO)
-- At a time when the Leafs "best players" have been exactly that, it isn't terribly important or fair to single one out.
Having said that, and with all due respect to Ed Belfour, Owen Nolan, Gary Roberts and Mats Sundin
who have delivered great efforts in the last few weeks, Joe Nieuwendyk deserves a little extra praise for both the circumstances under which he's made a tremendous impact in the last few games, and the manner in which he carries himself as a member of this team.
After learning a serious lesson about rushing to return from a back injury, or condition, as the case may be, Nieuwendyk stepped back into the lineup at Ottawa in late November and logged just under 13 minutes of ice time in a hard-fought 2-1 win.
He was kept off the score sheet, but made his presence felt with some very physical play. In the three games that followed, including two more on the road, Nieuwendyk improved dramatically on that ice-time mark, and registered multi-point efforts.
His most spectacular goal was a baseball swing, batting a waist-high puck out of the air in a rout of the Boston Bruins. His first goal of the same night was the game winner.
Nieuwendyk can certainly still score the high-skill goals. What might be even more important is the influence he has on the players around him, both on and off the ice.
In Gary Roberts' brief absence with a hip muscle strain, Nieuwendyk played left wing on Sundin's line, and gelled extremely well with the captain and Mikael Renberg. He has a gift for finding linemates in scoring position, and maybe by coincidence, maybe not, he tends to give players who are struggling to score goals exceptional chances with one-timer opportunities.
Renberg converted a nifty Nieuwendyk set up from the corner in the home-ice win over the Rangers, a huge goal in one of the most exciting games of the season. Similarly, he fed Matt Stajan
late in the 3rd period of the one-sided win over the Red Wings, for Stajan's second goal in three nights.
Of course that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his impact on the team's promising rookie. Nearly twice his age, Nieuwendyk is Stajan's roommate on the road, and has obviously been a great example of professionalism and preparation.