It’s prospect night at Air Canada Centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Faced with longish odds for making the playoffs, one Alberta professor pegged them at 3 per cent, the Leafs need the continued development of their young players, whether or not they manage to make the post-season or not.
We will be monitoring three, Carlo Colaiacovo, Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty.
After the First Period
As expected Tlusty starts with Sundin and Nik Antropov. He has three NHL goals, two in one game. Another would be nice, especially since his first one went off the seat of his pants.
The Leafs give up a goal on Tlusty’s first shift but he was uninvolved in the play that saw Keith Tkachuk score.
Colaiacovo is paired with Ian White. Colaiacovo is just 24, but his trail of injuries includes concussions, hand and wrist injuries and plenty of knee trouble. Still, if the rebirth of Nik Antropov’s career proves anything it’s that eventually, lousy luck runs out.
Stralman gets his first shift four minutes into the game. He is with Hal Gill and the logic is elementary. Stralman is a gifted skater. Gill is six-foot-seven.
Tkachuk deflects another one home. Tlusty is lagging on the play at the end of his shift.
Stralman turns the puck over in his own zone, resulting in a good chance for Lee Stempniak.
Colaiacovo is on the ice for Jason Blake’s 10th of the season on a nice pass from Darcy Tucker. The young defenceman shows a little more rust when he goes to nudge a puck into the corner and instead directs it right at Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala. Toskala, as is his habit, smothered it.
Tlusty just misses a breakaway pass from Pavel Kubina when it shimmies between his skates. Would have taken a superb play to make it work.
So far, the young guys haven’t done anything, good or bad.
After Second period
Just in case you think only coaches work with young players, Tlusty spends 15 seconds with referee Kevin Pollock. Pollock corrected Tlusty in the first period on how to position himself during face-offs and the two have a longer chat with plenty of hand signals.
Colaiacovo sees 40 seconds of ice time during a four on four. A shift later, a Colaiacovo pass is picked off at the blue line. The Blues, counterpunching all night, generate a good chance.
Maurice returns Ian White and Gill. Stralman sits.
Tlusty takes a hit to clear the zone.
Colaiacovo takes another minus when David Backes knocks a puck out of Toskala’s pads and into the net.
Stralman cradles the puck on the power play, loses control and then at the last moment whirls and puts it off the boards and on to the stick of a Leaf. Nifty play.
Colaiacovo finally gets on the plus side of the ledger when Matt Stajan scores on a nice feed from Blake. As with the other two goals against, he has nothing to do with the play.
Tlusty chops a nice backhand pass to Sundin in the St. Louis zone.
Anton Stralman pinches more than your wedding suit but to no ill effect.
Colaiacovo makes a fine bread and butter play, chasing down a loose puck in his zone and punishing the St. Louis player who is in pursuit.
After Third Period
Colaiacovo, looking increasingly comfortable, handles the point on a power play.
Paul Kariya barely avoids a sliding hit on the boards from Colaiacovo. He loses the puck but keeps his faculties.
Tlusty finally gets a good chance with eight minutes left but St. Louis goalie Manny Legace stops him with a glove save.
Colaiacovo has the best night of the bunch, he carries the puck deep into the St. Louis end and flips it through the crease before a Blue regains it. His confidence seems to grow by the shift.
Stralman is hampered by scant ice time. About the best thing you can say is he’s played another NHL game, his 23rd. When the game goes into the final minute, the Leafs pull Toskala and Stralman plops down beside him on the bench.
Tlusty will need more than a night to play with Sundin but he skated well, played his position and acquitted himself well.
It is for the three young players, as well as the rest of the Leafs, a desultory night.
A virtually identical play resulted in the Blues winning goal and a disallowed Leafs goal in the final minute.
Tlusty finished the night minus two, through no real fault of his own. He had two shots.
“It wasn’t enough tonight,” he said. “You can skate good but there was some bad luck in us getting scored on twice. I played with Mats who is a great scorer and he did not score. They got a goal when the whistle should have blown and we missed out on a goal. It was a hard night.”
Colaiacovo, statistically at least, fared better. He finished a plus one. His 19 shifts and 14:48 in ice time were largely uneventful but he didn’t look like a player who has played only five games this season.
“I just took it a shift at a time,” he said. “I didn’t worry about trying to do too much, I just kept it simple. I just have to continue building.”
Stralman, meanwhile, played 14:04, the least amount of any defenceman. He finished minus one and the puck rarely followed him. It wasn’t a bad night, aside from the result, just a forgettable one.
“I wasn’t very happy about the game tonight,” he said. “Sometimes you just never get the feel for the game. You make a pass that someone might otherwise get but this time it bounces off someone’s stick.”
There is a bonus, of course. All three players have gotten what they need most: another NHL game, number 28 for Tlusty, 23 for Stralman and 79 for Colaiacovo.
“Yes, one more game,” said Stralman. “One more chance to learn.”