Sunday, February 10, 2008


Matt Stajan's Fifth Year with the Leafs

It certainly did not look good for the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. They faced the daunting task of playing two of the top teams in the National Hockey League, as well as the Florida Panthers, just slightly ahead of them in the standings.

There was turmoil, and the team was adjusting to the recent firing of General Manager John Ferguson Junior, and the re-hiring of Cliff Fletcher. The Leafs Nation, as the media are wont to call the team’s fans, were on the war path.

Several key players were in the sick bay. Another, Nik Andropov, was in the sin bin for three games for throwing his stick in the vicinity of an official.

Coach Paul Maurice was under the gun. He rallied his troops for the Panthers game last Tuesday, to no avail. The Leafs started slowly, and only gave up a power play goal in the first period.

The floodgates opened at the ten second mark of the second period. The Panthers added two more goals that period, four more in the third. Final tally: eight for the visitors, none for the permanent residents of the Air Canada Centre.

Coach Maurice changed goaltenders, bringing in Andrew Raycroft halfway through the second, when the Panthers were up four zip. He called a time-out to chat with the boys. He passed on some tips prior to the start of the third period. To no avail.

Following the game, Coach Maurice took the podium for the traditional interview. It almost appeared like there was smoke coming out of his ears. Reporters carefully worded their questions.

When asked what he had to say to the players after the game, Maurice began: “I said just about everything I had to say at the end of the second period. After the second goal, we resorted to ‘swinging away’ and playing pond hockey. The booing that was heard after the sixth and seventh goals was to our team, not to the goalie. More than anything, our top end guys were drastically off.”

He added that he would not forget about this humiliating loss “for a long time”. “I did not expect this. I could go through a long list of guys that I am not happy with. I will handle this on my own.”

It was a little difficult to find any players to interview after the game; however, Matt Stajan answered a few questions for the hoard in the dressing room. “Naturally, this is a tough loss. But we’re a good group in here. The guys like each other. We will bounce back.”

Stajan is now into his fifth year as a full time professional hockey player. He began as a Leaf in the 2003-2004 season, and averages about 35 points per season.

He was the Leafs nominee last year for the King Clancy Trophy, “awarded to the player that best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy contribution to his community.”

Stajan had a stellar career with the Belleville Bulls, amassing 94 points in his final season. He reminded me that he now has two cousins in the OHL: Jake Laplante, a towering defenceman with the Peterborough Petes, and Thomas Stajan, a centre with the Brampton Battalion. He follows the exploits of the Bulls regularly.

He was pleased to see that the Bulls had two players, (Shawn Matthias and P. K. Subban) on the Canadian Junior team which recently won the World Championship. “It gave me bragging rights in the dressing room with the players from the other countries.”

Matthias, incidentally, has played for the Panthers this year. He was an “emergency call-up” due to injuries on the team. He will likely start with the Panthers next year, along with another former Bull-Branislav Mezei.

Yet another Bull with the Leafs, Chris Newbury, got involved in a shoving match with Mezei in front of the Panthers goal. Mezei had the distinct advantage of being more than half a foot taller than Newbury.

The Leafs quickly put that stinker behind them, roared out to record two straight victories over the Habs and the Red Wings before the week was done. In the Wings game, former Bull Daniel Cleary, in the midst of an outstanding season with the Wings, was struck in the cheek with a shot. He will miss six to eight weeks with the injury.

The Leafs have twenty-five games left to try to sneak into a playoff position-a difficult chore at this time as their nearest rivals-Buffalo and Boston are six points ahead with three games in hand. Nevertheless, still some great hockey to come.


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