Colby Armstrong’s eye is swollen shut today and it might be tempting to think it was well worth it.
It was the price Armstrong paid for having a big night on Friday in his first game back in Atlanta since he left the Thrashers as a free agent and signed with the Leafs last summer.
Actually, Armstrong had a goal and an assist before he departed the game in the second period when Thrashers winger Ben Eager dropped the Leaf forward with a heavy punch with his glove, so it was not like he was the big scorer in the Leafs’ 9-3 hazing of the Thrashers. Winger Nikolai Kulemin and defenceman Tomas Kaberle each had four points, while forwards Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski had three points each to carry the banner in that department.
But during the match penalty Eager received for the punch, plus a minor to Thrasher defenceman Dustin Byfuglien for his part in the ensuing scrum, the Leafs scored four power-play goals to put the game way out of reach. So giving credit to any mojo Armstrong brought with his return to the south makes as much sense as any other possible explanation for a bizarre night at Philips Arena in front of an announced crowd of 14,592.
Armstrong, who does not know if his eye injury will keep him out of any games on the rest of the Leafs’ road trip, still wasn’t sure what happened afterward. He and the rest of the Leafs want Eager to be suspended for the punch.
“He just sucker-punched me in the eye,” he said. “The guy’s a meathead.”
Since Eager received a match penalty for intent to injure, he is automatically suspended pending a review of the offence by NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell.
The Leafs, who have not had any nights like this in the last two seasons, seemed better equipped to look at the game from the Thrashers’ point of view.
“We’ve been there, too” MacArthur said. “It’s like quicksand. The harder you work, the deeper you go.”
Then again, this was not the first time the Leafs trashed this place. On Oct. 14, 2005, the Leafs thumped the Thrashers 9-1 in a fight-filled game that saw them score seven power-play goals. Since the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999, the Leafs have a 12-5-0-2 record at Philips.
However, no one expected this. The Thrashers, thanks to the addition of Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and a few other players are now a bona-fide playoff contender while the Leafs are still wallowing in the lower depths of the NHL’s Eastern Division.
But the Leafs are now in one of those streaks where everything they do seems to have a positive outcome, even on nights like Thursday when they blew a big lead but still managed to prevail in a shootout. The win was their third in their last four games and was an excellent way to kick off a road trip that will now take them to Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix.
The Leafs spotted the Thrashers a 1-0 lead on a goal by Tobias Enstrom before they took a 2-1 lead into the second period. Things were pretty routine at that point.
But quick goals by Armstrong and Kulemin put the Leafs ahead 4-1 and set the stage for Eager’s rough-housing. By the time things settled down early in the third period, the Leafs were up 9-1 and unhappy fans lost count of how many times Thrashers head coach Craig Ramsay changed his goaltenders.
Grabovski, Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur had two goals each while Phil Kessel, Armstrong and Versteeg had one. Patrice Cormier and Ladd scored for the Thrashers in the third period while hardly anyone was paying attention.
The Leafs’ best line of Grabovski at centre with wingers MacArthur and Kulemin was on fire. In addition to the trio’s six goals, there were four assists for a total of 10 points. “It’s just the right combination,” MacArthur said. “[Grabovski] works so hard up the middle, Kulie’s like a bull and I’ve been able to find Grabbo.”
Boy, did Thrashers goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason have a tough night at the office. Pavelec was the starter and took a 2.14 goals-against average and .936 save percentage into the game. He was pulled when the Leafs exploded in the second period to pull ahead 4-1 at 13:25. On came Mason, who was quickly lit up for three goals in 5 minutes, 49 seconds. Back out came Pavelec and it was Mason’s turn to do the skate of shame to the bench. But Pavelec let in the first shot with 11 seconds left in the period to make it 8-1 Leafs, so Mason was back at the start of the third period.
Down at the other end, Leaf rookie James Reimer was solid in the first period when the Thrashers were actually playing the game. Then he had an easy ride in his third start for the Leafs, which raised his record to 2-1.
Reimer said he felt bad for Mason, who is a friend, but could not keep a huge grin off his face.
“No, I didn’t see this coming at all,” he said. “When you are up by a lot it’s hard to keep your focus.”
Byfuglien and Kulemin had a nice little feud going in the first period. Byfuglien started it when he flattened Kulemin at the Leaf blueline. Kulemin returned the favour a few seconds later when he knocked Byfuglien down. That was not bad, since Kulemin, who stands 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, gives up a good 40 pounds to the 6-foot-5 Byfuglien.
Actually, several Leafs took runs at Byfuglien in a bid to keep the Thrashers’ leading scorer in check.
“Obviously, you want to play a guy like that hard,” Armstrong said. “He’s a key guy.”