by John Iaboni
October 20, 2003
Settling in on a good, old-fashioned, rainy, autumn Saturday night in front of the tube, it just couldn't seem to get any better than this: Leafs-Canadiens from Montreal on Hockey Night in Canada.
Nostalgia involving this passionate hockey rivalry was heightened in the pre-game salute to classy Jean Beliveau, marking his 50th year as a Hab at a time he also celebrates his 50th wedding anniversary. What a player, what a man!
But before the on-ice ceremony, Don Cherry shouted across the nation that the Leafs "must win this game . . . it's a must-win for them."
After all, three games into the season and the Leafs weren't showing their playoff form. Their miserly start consisted of two ties and a lousy loss - a shutout at that - in the listless season opener at Air Canada Centre to these very Canadiens.
| The Leafs finally had cause to celebrate Saturday night in Montreal. |
OK, they deserved a better fate in Game 2 when they outplayed the Capitals before the 2-2 standoff and, while they were lethargic in New Jersey, don't forget it was the Devils who had to come from behind, scoring with two seconds left, to earn the 2-2 draw.
With "their backs to the wall" in record fashion this season, the Leafs finally sunk their teeth into their first victory of the campaign. Or, in the case of Ric Jackman, his contribution to the Tooth Fairy produced a most welcome gift - the game-winning goal on the power play, his first NHL regular-season goal in four years.
So, one week into their season, and the Leafs, like the defending Stanley Cup champion Devils, were 1-1-2-0. But, unlike the Devils, the Leafs were suddenly "riding" a three-game unbeaten streak heading into the remaining stops on this five-game road trip - Long Island, Dallas and Phoenix.
After Saturday night's NHL action, only the high-priced New York Rangers, the 2003 Stanley Cup finalist Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the 2002 Stanley Cup finalist Carolina Hurricanes were winless which was welcome news for those of you who had one of these teams in a hockey pool to determine the last team to hit the win column at the start of the season.
Last season after four games, the Leafs were 1-3-0-0, en route to a 4-9-2-0 struggle for 13th in the Eastern Conference through their first 15 games before returning to the .500-mark on December 6 (12-12-2-0) for 10th in the conference. They finished the season with 98 points, fourth highest in the east, although they were given the No. 5 seed in the playoffs because divisional winners, in this case the Tampa Bay Lightning with 93 points to lead the Southeast, earn one of the top three seeds in the playoffs, regardless of points accumulated.
In life, perception is everything and in the NHL, no one seems to come under the microscope or is subjected to a greater sense of urgency than the Leafs.
If hysteria had infiltrated the Leafs' dressing room heading into the contest at Montreal, steady Eddie Belfour deflected such notions in the same way he steers pucks away. You don't want points to slip away early in the year, Belfour said after posting the shutout, and, yes, there were games where things didn't go their way. But, he reasoned, the Leafs worked away, stuck together and finally hit the winning circle.
Even Cherry admitted at night's end that the Leafs "are going to be all right" and given the evidence that should be the case.
They gained a tie in New Jersey and a win in Montreal minus last season's leading scorer, Alexander Mogilny, who was injured during the Washington game. They've gone through the early stages without defenceman Bryan McCabe.
While Belfour's goals-against-average four games in, even after yielding four goals in the season opener, was a sparkling 1.88, the offence hadn't yet found the range. The best Leafs centre so far? Robert Reichel, hands down. He's been involved, dangerous and energetic although his stats line showed zero points.
At some point, the Leafs will start converting their opportunities and the core of slumping forwards will find the range. Four games in and only five goals scored, the Leafs' scoring leaders, each with two points, were Nik Antropov, Jackman and Tomas Kaberle. Antropov was the only Leaf with two goals.
Scoring at a pace that will generate zero points this season was a group featuring Mats Sundin, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Owen Nolan. The career form chart on these horses shows they're much better than that, so it's only a matter of time before they erupt. It's either that, or their careers have come to a crashing halt, all at the same time. Yeah, right!
This quartet exuded a great deal of energy against the Canadiens and only exemplary work by Jose Theodore kept them pointless.
In Roberts' case, he was in his best swashbuckling form in some time. It was his turf war with Patrice Brisebois that screened and impeded Theodore enough to allow what Jackman called a puck that had eyes for the net to decide this cliffhanger.
The Leafs won, not in a rout, mind you, but they were full marks for their first win of the season. The panic button is on hold. At least, it is for now.