Game 55: When a loss is a step in the right direction
"Niagara Falls continues to be a world leader in coin operated viewing."
I heard a man say this last summer. Outside, the falls roared, misting eyes. Inside a nearby shopping tunnel, where I stood next to a lollipop outlet waiting for my wife and daughters, this guy with a badge was talking to another guy with a badge.
About long-range vision.
I thought about this odd quote while watching last night's 2-1 overtime loss to Jersey. Even as Ilya Kovalchuk activated his $100 million afterburners, rushing end to end and ending it all, Toronto's future clicked into sharper focus.
And you know what? It looked bright.
* Keith Aulie, in his first game in his second tour of duty, was a borderline revelation. Aulie was the kind of young defenceman – always in position, reading plays, using his skyscraper size to obliterate opponents – a general manager would trade his liver, summer home and mother to acquire.
* The 2011 Phil Kessel Slump Watch continues. But last night, for the second straight game, he made a beautiful play to set-up new linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Kessel is battling for pucks, using his body more often and – I hope my laptop doesn't explode right now – backchecking. Is the one-dimensional sniper now entering new realms?
* James Reimer, so reliably stellar we are almost taking it for granted, was once again reliably stellar. The Devils of New Jersey – a shockingly different team since Jacques Lemaire resumed all coaching and scowling duties – have been hunting and trapping like The Palins of Alaska. Last night, they put Reimer in the crosshairs, shooting often (39 times) and from lethally close range.
* Joffrey Lupul, wearing his new No. 19 Leafs jersey for the first time, repeatedly did two things we are not accustomed to seeing from players not named MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin: 1. He went to the net. 2. He found open ice between the circles. Yes, he botched a perfect pass from MacArthur. And, yes, he apparently was trying to fit in during the first period when he missed the net by a country mile more than once. But if Lupul can recapture his pre-injury scoring touch, the Leafs have a new weapon to deploy, especially on the sputtering power play.
So as I sit here at 7 a.m. on the morning after an overtime loss, I am more hopeful than after many wins. I am encouraged by the slight modifications, the promise of more and the effort we are witnessing with greater consistency.
The game in a nutshell? Neither team won the first period. Toronto won the second period. Jersey won the third period. And Kovalchuk won the overtime. In other words, what you might expect at this precise moment in time.
But this precise moment in time is the least of it. Last night's game was really just a coin in the machine and another turn of the focusing wheel.