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Fans across most markets are unhappy; Leaflanders are not alone

I won’t try to say anything about Crosby that hasn’t been said, and better, by many other observers—including those who see him in action far more often than I do.  What I will say is that, as a Leaf fan, his presence on the ice reminds of players from my formative years.  By that I mean he demands unusual attention from the opposition on the ice, and creates a fear in the fans of the teams he is playing against.  I used to fret, for example, whenever Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Gilbert Perreault where on the ice against the Leafs in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Crosby gives modern-day Leaf fans, I’m sensing, that same uncomfortable feeling.
  • A loss to the Penguins is hardly earth-shattering and it doesn’t undo the good that was accomplished in the previous two encounters.  What is important is how the Leafs respond from here.
  •  I mentioned after the Washington contest that, when the Leafs become a legitimate contender, they could use a gritty, experienced pro like Mike Knuble.  Perhaps the same could be said of Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz.  Kunitz is one of those invaluable “lesser-lights” who just seems to get better over time.  He has two Cups already on his resume.  He had a big impact on the game against the Leafs, including in his own zone when he smartly skated the puck out of danger when Toronto was pressuring, down by only two.  Did anyone in hockey think, when he was lost and then re-claimed on waivers by Anaheim within a matter of days in 2005, that he would become this kind of contributor?
  • Kadri has shown a lot of skill in his short time with the big club.  At the same time, I’m guessing the Leaf brass anticipated more goals from him.  They brought him up when the team was struggling to score.  In the context of what will be a long and very good NHL career, 11 games is nothing.  But they did expect him to score by now.
  • Optimists will set aside Wednesday night’s setback as a temporary after two impressive wins.  Those less inclined to think that way will be thankful the Bruins drew that late penalty on Saturday night, allowing the Leafs to score in the dying seconds and win in extra time.  What might we be saying now if the Leafs didn’t score that late goal Saturday night, a goal which may have buoyed their spirits when things looked hopeless in Washington?
  • On that note, do the Leafs get full marks for two consecutive inspired third period comebacks?  Or did Washington and Pittsburgh both take their foot off the pedal? The Pens barely got a shot on goal in the third period.
  • Grabovski may not be playing better than other Leaf forwards, but he is finishing.  And I liked his determination the back check on what could have been a dangerous Pittsburgh rush when it was 4-2.  Unfortunately, his line was on for the late clincher.
  • The Leafs had great chances after making it 4-2, including Brent being set up beautifully with less than five minutes remaining.
  • Cooke is an agitator, a player that can really help his team.  But his third period infraction, just after the Leafs scored twice in a row, was the definition of a poor penalty.
  •  Big minutes again for both Schenn and Kaberle.  Schenn was even on the night, Kaberle minus 1.
What separates Leaf supporters (at least long-time Leaf boosters) from counterparts in many other cities is the length of their misery.  We all know the story of the post ’67 drought.  It’s been well-documented and some of us have actually lived it.

That said, it struck me as I was listening, rather vacantly, to Buffalo sports-talk radio this week, that, in the present NHL Eastern Conference context, we are far from alone.

The co-hosts both wound their way through a Sabre team analysis to come to the painful but clear realization that their team, in simple terms, just isn’t that good.  Oh, they have some guys in their prime who are nice players, like Roy, Vanek, Gaustad and of course Ryan Miller in goal.  But the thing is, even those players trigger waves of frustration and discontent on any given day for Sabre fans. In addition,  Pominville and Connolly are seen as over-paid underachievers—and the team is thought, by critics,  to be riddled with what most calling the show felt are, at best, fourth-line and AHL-level players.

Sound familiar?

Well, it’s just not here where fans can relate.  In most Eastern Conference markets, heck, in much of the NHL, fans don’t have the teams they want.

Are Carolina fans satisfied?  Islanders?  Surely Devil fans are not, though they are at least warmed by the memories of several Stanley Cup championships.

Can Ottawa fans, who had a Cup-worthy team three years ago, possibly be happy with the present—much less the future?  Florida?  The Rangers?  I don’t think so.

Even look at Montreal.  Yes, they are in first place, for what it’s worth, in their Division.  But look at that roster.  How good a team will they be in two years?  How many young studs do they have who will set the league on fire?

My point, I guess, is that in the parity-filled East, as I’ve discussed for weeks, there are many average NHL teams, with rosters that don’t exactly tantalize.

Even in the tougher West, are Calgary fans happy? Minnesota?  San Jose, where they have Cup teams on paper but never in June, when it matters?

Oh, all of these teams work hard.  That is today’s NHL.  Unless we’re talking about a star talent like Alex Kovalev, not many players are accused of not caring or not trying.  In fact, since most rosters now have many players who could just as easily be in the minors, the work rate is probably as high as ever.  If you make it to the “show”, you sure want to stay there.

So this is a function of the cap, I suppose, which has become the basis of this parity.  Not many elite teams.  After watching Washington, (and I realize it was a meaningless December game for them, they need to show up in May when it matters…) I’m not even certain they are truly elite. Pittsburgh, when healthy, may be the only team in that category in the East, and if they ever lost Crosby, I think we’d see just another pretty good NHL team because Malkin can be like Kovalchuk and Kovalev—too often uninspired.

All a long way of saying Leaf fans are not alone, and the Leafs fit in with a bunch of teams, especially in the less-than-stellar East.  Anything is possible, in playoff terms.         

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