Thursday, 8 December 2011

Mid-Season Gem Awaits Maple Leafs

By HOWARD BERGER

WASHINGTON (Dec. 8) - After getting flattened by a virus on the weekend and having to skip Monday's Leafs-Rangers game in New York (the flu never seems to appear before a January trip to Edmonton), it's nice to be back on the road here in the grand capital of the United States. Though the Leafs have been plodding along just a notch above .500 since opening the season 4-0-1, a vastly underplayed quirk in their schedule could prove invaluable.

Upon flying home from their first visit to Winnipeg on New Year's Eve, the Leafs don't go near an airport until Jan. 23, when they make a post-game flight to Long Island. For nearly three-and-a-half weeks in what is generally considered the toughest part of the season (the post-Christmas "dog days" of January), the Toronto players will spend their nights at home. The club will have a busy slate of nine games at the Air Canada Centre during that period, but the only road match is a bus-ride to and from Buffalo. To boot: following the game at Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 24, Leaf players not involved in the All-Star festivities in Ottawa will have another full week of rest prior to a Jan. 31 encounter at Pittsburgh.

It should come as no surprise that Toronto has not enjoyed this caliber of break at any time in the post-expansion era (since 1967); January, in fact, has often featured laborious travel. Last season, the Leafs went to Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix (Jan. 7-13). Two years ago, it was down to Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Florida (Jan. 15-23). In 2007-08: Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose (Jan. 9-12). In 2005-06: Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver (Jan. 6-10); then Colorado, Minnesota and two games in Ottawa (Jan. 17-23).

Only twice since the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams have the Leafs enjoyed a period of light, mid-season travel. In 1971-72, the club played at Pittsburgh on Dec. 28 and did not fly again until a Jan. 19 game at Montreal. In between (like this year) was a bus trip to Buffalo (Jan. 9). Unlike this year, the Leafs immediately offset the easy travel with a seven-game trip to Montreal, Minnesota, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Vancouver and Detroit (Jan. 19 to Feb. 1). In 1978-79, the Leafs of Sittler, McDonald, Salming et al played a road game against the Islanders (Dec. 26) and then seven in a row at home before flying to Denver on Jan. 15.

But, 23 nights on the ground, followed by seven more of complete rest for the bulk of the team, is a luxury confined to the current Leafs... one the club must avail itself of. Luck involving roster health will obviously play a determining role, as will the Leafs ability to maintain focus on home ice. The Saturday-night games next month shouldn't be a problem with Detroit, the Rangers and Montreal in town. But, mid-week visits by Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Buffalo, Ottawa, Minnesota and the Islanders will pose a challenge, given a penchant for snoozing on such occasions.

Ron Wilson will therefore need to be at his creative best - varying the pace and mood of practises and morning skates. Add in a break from key injuries and the much-improved Leafs could gobble up some impressive real estate in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

As always, I had my trusty Nikon in hand during the trip here late this afternoon:



THERE WAS AN INTERESTING SKY ABOVE PEARSON AIRPORT AS AIR CANADA FLIGHT #308 PREPARED TO LEAVE FOR WASHINGTON AT 3:50 P.M. THURSDAY.



I LOVE THIS PHOTO: THE FACE OF A NEARLY-FULL MOON APPEARS TO BE GAZING DIRECTLY AT THE WING-LET OF OUR EMBRAER-175 IN MID-FLIGHT.



ALMOST NEVER IN MY YEARS OF FLYING HAVE I SEEN SUCH A SPECTACULAR COLLAGE OF COLOURS AND SWIRLING CLOUD-PATTERNS AT SUN-SET.



TWENTY MINUTES BEFORE LANDING, WE PASS OVER DOWNTOWN BALTIMORE AND ITS INNER-HARBOUR (ABOVE). ORIOLE PARK AT CAMDEN YARDS IS ALL LIT UP IN EARLY-DECEMBER WHILE M & T BANK STADIUM - HOME OF THE NFL BALTIMORE RAVENS - STANDS DARK ACROSS THE ROAD.



MOMENTS LATER - FLYING ABOVE LANDOVER, MARYLAND - WE NOTICE THAT FED EX FIELD, HOME OF THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS, IS ALSO ILLUMINATED, TWO DAYS BEFORE HOSTING THE ANNUAL ARMY-NAVY COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME: TO BE ATTENDED BY U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA AND VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN. IT'S THE 112th EDITION, BUT FIRST TO BE HELD INSIDE THE CAPITAL BELTWAY.



RUSH-HOUR TRAFFIC SNAKES THROUGH ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA (ABOVE) AS OUR PLANE IS ON FINAL APPROACH TO REAGAN NATIONAL AIRPORT (BELOW).

1 comment:

  1. If you want to spice up one of your nights, why not get some Leafs tickets and catch a game being played live!

    ReplyDelete