Joffrey Lupul had two months on his hands and wasn’t able to use one of them.
But rather than mope about waiting for his broken arm to heal, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger decided to work on his feet by sitting down for long sessions with the team’s skating coach, renowned figure skater Barb Underhill.
She showed Lupul video, comparing his skating to noted speedster Jeff Skinner using an advanced computer program, and highlighted areas to improve.
The work appears to have paid off.
Lupul was the driving force in the Leafs latest win on Thursday night, scoring an incredible end-to-end goal with three minutes left in a tie game to pace Toronto to a 6-3 win over a reeling Carolina Hurricanes team.
The play was unlike many seen in the league in these days of tight checking, low scoring hockey, with Lupul inconspicuously corralling the puck in his own end, blowing by a defender wide and then bulling his way across the crease to create room to tuck in the puck.
Few expected it – on either team or in the stands – and the fans began chanting Lupul’s name shortly after realizing just what he had done.
“It’s one you’re going to see for a long time on the highlight reels,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who scored the pivotal tying goal two minutes before Lupul’s winner. “It’s just a great play by a real great player... We’ll be seeing that for a lot of years.”
“We were just kind of in shock,” defencemen Cody Franson added.
Despite playing just eight games this season due to his injury and a two-game suspension, Lupul has become the team’s undisputed MVP of this odd recent streak, a sort of high level trade deadline acquisition without making a trade.
He has scored an impressive seven goals in five games as the Leafs have pulled out points in seven straight (4-0-3), looking like an even better and more complete player than in his breakout point-a-game showing a year ago.
On Thursday, Lupul’s late heroics helped cover up what would have been an epic collapse for the Leafs, who had raced out to a 2-0 lead in the game’s first half on the back of two pinpoint passes from Phil Kessel and appeared to have the game in hand.
But in what’s become a trend of late for teams playing Toronto, the Hurricanes came flying back, getting goals from their three stars – Eric Staal, brother Jordan and Alex Semin – to give them a 3-2 lead deep into the third.
The goals scored by the Staal brothers, in particular, weren’t pretty, with the Leafs defencemen – Franson and Carl Gunnarsson, in this case – looking decidedly out of it on two individual efforts from the big men from Thunder Bay.
This, however, was a fragile Carolina team, one coming off of losing six in a row and missing its two top goaltenders, and part of the late collapse rested on the shoulders of third stringer Justin Peters.
“The bottom line is we didn't get the saves,” exasperated ‘Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “We didn’t get the saves at the right time and it cost us.”
“There was a couple big momentum shifts, but we kept going,” Phaneuf said. “That’s the character of our group.”
The Hurricanes, now 10 points back of sixth-place Toronto and fading fast, had far more problems than the play of their overmatched tender.
They were outshot 34-22 – including 13-5 in the third alone – and several defenders deserved goat horns for failing to hold the line after they had made an impressive comeback.
That included veteran Joe Corvo, who had the front row seat for Lupul’s manoeuvre right around him, through the crease and into his celebration as the Air Canada Centre crowd began its chant.
It beat sitting out with a broken arm, unable to shoot or stickhandle very well and watching video of an opponent with a retired figure skating champ.
But that injury time was also part of what got him here, with more than a goal a game and giving a huge boost to a Leafs team that was already producing well in the scoring department.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a strong skater,” Lupul said. “Maybe not as explosive as some guys. She did a lot of work with me, using a cool program to compare me side-by-side with another player – we did a lot with Jeff Skinner – and his stride to see where the deficiencies were and where he was gaining speed on me. We worked four days a week for three weeks, and it certainly helped.”
“It’s a display of determination,” coach Randy Carlyle said of Lupul’s goal. “He was determined and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Determination was something that was sorely lacking from last year’s Leafs, who folded badly during a 2-13-2 stretch with roughly 30 games to play and finished well out of the playoff race.
This year, they’re showing it more often than not, and it’s a huge reason why they’re five or six wins away from finally getting to the postseason.
They’re not out of the woods yet, even if there’s a lot of daylight beginning to peek through.
And it hardly hurts adding an all-star into the lineup for the stretch run.
“We saw behind the scenes how hard he worked,” defenceman John-Michael Liles said of Lupul. “It’s like we picked up a guy off a trade. He’s come in, in great shape, and dominated the league. He’s been huge for us.”
“Last year we probably wouldn’t have won that game,” Lupul said. “And this year we would.”