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Raking The Leafs

February 5, 2009 - Matt Spielman

Can we give the Toronto Maple Leafs back to the Western Conference?

Their performance Wednesday night at HSBC Arena was terrible. Even Ryan Miller -- in the midst of a two-game shutout streak -- probably wanted to be busier and face more than the 16 shots that he did.

What became a huge rivalry when the Leafs came to the Eastern Conference, driving down the QEW four times a year and with the Sabres returning the favor another four times, has turned into a dud on the Sabres schedule -- the crowd was at less-than-capacity Wednesday and on TV sounded much-less pro-Leafs than in recent years. Buffalo's emotional battles with the Ottawa Senators have long surpassed Toronto games as the highlights of the HSBC Arena schedule each year.

On the other hand, fans in Toronto -- arguably the league's hottest market -- deserve better than the team currently on the ice. Spectators in hockey hotbeds like Miami, Phoenix and Columbus are getting better shows each night than the ones put on by Toronto.

Quick, name five players on the Leafs roster.

Probably couldn't do it.

Granted, the Sabres were flying high Wednesday night in their first home game in nearly three weeks.

After Tim Connolly gave Buffalo the 1-0 lead, Drew Stafford made a sick move between his legs before roofing a puck past rookie goalie Justin Pogge, prompting play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret's now-famous "roll the highlight reel" call, to give the Sabres a 2-0 lead.

Thomas Vanek, quiet in the goal column recently while still adding assists, awoke from his slumber with the next three goals. First the 6-foot-2-inch Austrian scored one of his typical power-play goals, gobbling up a rebound, curling around Pogge and sliding the puck in the back of the net. Next, after being foiled deking on a breakaway just minutes earlier, Vanek decided to go a different route and ripped a laser beam over the young goaltender's shoulder from the right face-off dot for his 31st goal of the year. To complete the hat trick, Vanek scored what may have been his easiest goal of the season, deflecting in Jason Pominville's perfect pass with a 5-on-3 advantage to cap the scoring.

What's surprising isn't the Sabres' five goals, it is the relative ease with which they scored them. Toronto didn't put up any fight, unless you call the 11 penalties the Leafs took "putting up a fight." Toronto is just lucky the Sabres were only 2-for-9 on the power play. When Chris Butler was called for hooking 11 minutes into the first period, John Mitchell decided to make it a 4-on-4 with a stupid hit on Patrick Kaleta after the whistle. Even when the Leafs did have a power play, such as when Craig Rivet took a hooking penalty later in the opening period, Dominic Moore came back with a holding infraction in the offensive zone to negate the man advantage.

Brian Burke, Toronto's new general manager, likes a physical team but not a stupid one. While with the Anaheim Ducks, Burke's teams were regularly near the top of the league in penalty minutes, but also near the top of the Western Conference standings. Burke already brought tough-guy Brad May over from Anaheim, but that will hardly make a difference. Burke is known for being busy at the trade deadline ä which is just less than a month away ä especially his first deadline with a new team. I can't imagine anybody on the Leafs is untouchable, except maybe rookie defenseman Luke Schenn. The GM has a lot of work to do to mold this Leafs team into a "Brian Burke team."

Good luck Mr. Burke.


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Buffalo Sabres' Tim Connolly (19) celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Wednesday. AP photo