COLUMBUS (Nov. 3) - Without a doubt, this is the caliber of start Brian Burke was hoping for, partly so he wouldn't have to involve his coach in any dirty work. About the last decision the Maple Leafs' general manager wanted to make was firing his long-time pal, Ron Wilson, though such a move would have unquestionably occurred had the club stumbled from the gate once again. As it stands one month into the season, perhaps Burke will find time to discuss that contract extension he denied Wilson over the summer, for nobody expected the Leafs to be sitting atop the overall NHL standings in the first week of November. That's where the Blue & White resides this morning, after a 4-1 triumph over the dreadful Columbus Blue Jackets Thursday night at Nationwide Arena. Toronto sports a nifty record of 9-3-1, having fully capitalized on the soft underbelly of its opening-month schedule.
Such is the confidence in his team that Wilson did not hesitate to tinker with momentum here on Thursday. Though the Blue Jackets hardly rank as prime opposition, it was still risky to allow Ben Scrivens his first NHL start in goal. Risky, that is, until Steve Mason soiled the linen at the opposite end. Mason allowed a goal by Clarke MacArthur late in the first period that many people dependant on a walker would have stopped. It was essentially a flip-shot from the left-wing boards that somehow floated past Mason's out-stretched glove, virtually ending the night for his teammates. It provided Toronto a 2-0 lead at a crippling juncture of the opening frame - only 14.4 seconds remained - and the visitors resumed their onslaught early in the middle period, chasing the Columbus starter upon widening the lead to 4-0.
This is the killer instinct I referred to in my preview blog on Thursday afternoon. The Leafs are not playing at a particularly high level, defensively, but they are compensating with a deft touch in the attacking zone. Each night, it seems, a different player steps forward. In the early games, Phil Kessel was unstoppable. Joffrey Lupul has provided terrific support - his natural hat-trick proving decisive in Newark on Wednesday. Now, it's MacArthur whose every advance toward the opposition goal is paying off. If Tim Connolly and Nikolai Kulemin get untracked, the Leafs could be an offensive juggernaut.
A tougher challenge, however, is on the horizon. Over the next couple of weeks, the Leafs face such opponents as Boston, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville, Washington and Tampa Bay - most of whom appeared in the playoffs last spring. If the club is still at or near the apex of the NHL standings in early-December, look out. Toronto may not be talking about anything else.
Now, my photo-review of Thursday night's game here in Columbus:
IT WAS NO SURPRISE TO DISCOVER THE USUAL ALLOTMENT OF BLUE & WHITE FANS IN TOWN FOR A ROAD GAME. TICKETS HERE AREN'T EXACTLY AT A PREMIUM.
IT'S BEEN A DARK, MISERABLE FIRST MONTH OF THE SEASON FOR FANS OF THE BLUE JACKETS, AS THE TEAM SITS DEAD-LAST IN THE NHL STANDINGS WITH A 2-10-1 RECORD AFTER 13 GAMES.
TIM CONNOLLY OF THE MAPLE LEAFS DIGS IN AT CENTER-ICE AGAINST THE BLUE JACKETS' DEREK MacKENZIE (ABOVE), WHILE RICK NASH ATTEMPTS TO DISTANCE HIMSELF FROM JOFFREY LUPUL.
TORONTO WON EASILY FOR THE SECOND CONSECUTIVE TIME AT NATIONWIDE ARENA: THE 4-1 VICTORY FOLLOWING A 6-3 CONQUEST HERE ON DEC. 3, 2009.
AFTER ALLOWING ONE OF THE SOFTEST GOALS IMAGINABLE - CLARKE MacARTHUR'S FLOATER FROM THE LEFT-WING BOARDS IN THE DYING SECONDS OF THE FIRST PERIOD - COLUMBUS STARTER STEVE MASON LASTED UNTIL 5:31 OF THE MIDDLE FRAME. ONCE THE LEAFS HAD INFLATED THEIR LEAD TO 4-0, MASON WAS YANKED IN FAVOR OF BACK-UP ALLEN YORK. MINUTES LATER (ABOVE), ALL MASON COULD DO ON THE BLUE JACKETS BENCH WAS GAZE HEAVENWARD.
DEFENSEMAN JOHN-MICHAEL LILES (NO. 24, ABOVE) - ACQUIRED FROM COLORADO MOMENTS BEFORE THE NHL DRAFT LAST JUNE - CONTRIBUTED TO MASON'S DEMISE BY SCORING HIS FIRST GOAL IN A LEAFS UNIFORM, GIVING HIS CLUB A 3-0 LEAD EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD.
YOU MAY NOT GET AN ARGUMENT SUGGESTING THAT THE BLUE JACKETS' MASCOT (ABOVE) HAS BEEN THE CLUB'S MOST EFFICIENT PERFORMER IN THE OPENING MONTH OF THE SEASON.
GOALIE ALLEN YORK ISN'T REALLY TRYING TO ESCAPE THURSDAY NIGHT'S LOP-SIDED ENCOUNTER; IT JUST APPEARS THAT WAY (ABOVE). ACTUALLY, YORK IS RACING TOWARD THE CORNER TO RETRIEVE HIS STICK, LOST IN A SCRAMBLE NEAR THE NET.
R.J. UMBERGER OF THE BLUE JACKETS MAY HAVE FOUND A METHOD OF HAMPERING FACE-OFF SPECIALIST DAVID STECKEL (ABOVE), THOUGH HE'LL LIKELY FIND HIMSELF WATCHING FROM THE PENALTY BOX IF HE CONTINUES WITH THIS TACTIC.
SADLY, THE END SEATS AT NATIONWIDE ARENA WEREN'T A GREAT DEAL MORE OCCUPIED THAN IN THE ABOVE PHOTO, THOUGH MANY HAD ALREADY VACATED THE BUILDING LATE IN THE THIRD PERIOD.
BLUE JACKETS FANS PROBABLY FEEL THEY'VE BEEN WATCHING THE HOCKEY VERSION OF SESAME STREET THROUGH THE FIRST MONTH OF THE SCHEDULE.
SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDST OF THIS HUMANITY IS LEAFS' GOALIE BEN SCRIVENS, GETTING MAULED BY TEAMMATES AFTER PREVAILING IN HIS FIRST NHL START. WITH A BIT MORE BREATHABLE AIR (BELOW), SCRIVENS LEAVES THE ICE BESIDE FELLOW NETMINDER JONAS GUSTAVSSON.
RON WILSON EXPLAINS TO REPORTERS HE CHOSE TO START SCRIVENS WHILE WALKING TO NATIONWIDE ARENA FOR THE LEAFS OPTIONAL SKATE THURSDAY MORNING.
LOOKING COOL AND DAPPER AFTER HIS FIRST NHL START - AND WIN - BEN SCRIVENS (LEFT) POSES ABOVE WITH TEAMMATE JOFFREY LUPUL OUTSIDE THE LEAFS DRESSING ROOM.
HAVING SPENT THE NIGHT ON THE LEAFS BENCH, A RESTED JONAS GUSTAVSSON SIGNS A POST-GAME AUTOGRAPH (ABOVE) FOR A PRETTY ADMIRER. TELL ME THE BALD GUY IN BACK OF THE BLOND LADY ISN'T THE SPITTING IMAGE OF MATS SUNDIN?!