by Bob Harwood
Trade deadline day, and the events that preceded and followed it, had the Maple Leafs in their usual position as one of the most talked about and possibly distracted NHL teams in terms of matters OFF the ice. The storylines of the last 2 weeks or so make up one of the most emotional periods in recent Maple Leaf history.
The Maple Leafs delivered on their promise of an active trade deadline period by obtaining Owen Nolan and Glen Wesley in the days leading up to March 11.
Sandwiched in between those moves and the deadline day itself, a solid victory over a desperate Edmonton Oilers team that saw Ed Belfour re-capture his mid-season form, and silence the nervous many who had begun to wonder if he was slipping.
| Nolan gives the Leafs the power forward they've been looking for. |
Graig Abel Photography
The Nolan and Wesley trades might have been enough for Leaf fans, and they certainly seemed to be accepted as solid moves by the players themselves, who as a group, had some of their swagger back.
But the team took their commitment, in terms of talent and symbolism, to an unimagined level by trading for former Leaf great Doug Gilmour, after having already added veteran blue-liner Phil Housley as their first trade deadline day move.
On Thursday the Leafs took morning skate in Calgary, but let Alexander Mogilny leave the team to tend to an undisclosed personal matter, presumably back in Toronto.
Warm up the roller coaster. . .
That night, Gilmour's (regular) season, and the story-book return to Toronto that was still just days away, came to an end after an awkward collision with Dave Lowry. In spite of Tie Domi's return from a 3-game suspension, the Maple Leafs were not sharp in an overtime loss to the Flames.
Gilmour was sent to Toronto the next day for further examination of what was feared to be a shattered knee joint, and to make matters worse, so was Gary Roberts, his injured groin derailing, for the time being, HIS highly emotional return after just 13 games.
That roller coaster's in a free-fall now. . .
The Maple Leafs have answered questions by the media about "big tests" all season long. The ability to push through the distractions and the emotionalism of the days leading up their re-match with Vancouver came under the microscope on Saturday night.
Sometimes things come together in just the right doses. The roller coaster's pointed in the right direction again. . .
The Leafs were more physical than the Canucks, moved the puck better, allowed fewer good scoring chances, and benefited from Ed Belfour's seventh shutout of the season.
They had veteran forwards Mikael Renberg and Tom Fitzgerald back from shoulder and ankle injuries respectively, and (this one is both symbolic and very promising), saw the emerging and potentially explosive connection between Owen Nolan, their prize acquisition and Nik Antropov, who all trade-talk partners insisted on, on the game's only goal.
Their actions were simple, confident and effective, a combination that is all too important and can be elusive in close, late-season games. Antropov sliced through a confused Canucks defence group, held the puck, and found that Nolan had moved to a wide-open spot in prime shooting position. Perfect pass, perfect shot, and a demonstrative Nolan goal celebration Leaf fans are getting used to in a hurry. . .
The table was set for a major letdown, considering the Roberts, Mogilny, and Gilmour issues. Their final western-Canada road trip of 2002-'03 might represent the most important 5-of-a-possible-6 points picked up by the Leafs in a long time.