David Clarkson took the quick, short pass from his linemate and wired the shot right to the top corner, putting the fourth goal of the night past beleaguered New York Islanders netminder Kevin Poulin as a late insurance marker in a game his team already had under control.
And as he pumped his arm in celebration, the Air Canada Centre crowd rose to its feet to cheer the hometown hero’s first goal as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
They had waited quite a while to do so.
Clarkson had started with the Leafs on the wrong foot, taking a silly 10-game suspension in preseason that meant he didn’t even dress as a Leaf until Oct. 25.
Eleven games later, he finally found the back of the net, scoring the 4-1 goal in what became a 5-2 win that was powered like so many Leafs games this season by good goaltending and Phil Kessel’s amazing release.
“It does feel good to get some people off my back a little bit,” a beaming Clarkson said to the media as he stood next to his dressing room stall after the game. “It’s all part of the game. When you’re getting chances, it’s eventually going to come.
“Definitely a good feeling. But the better feeling is coming in here after a win and turning on that music. That’s the best feeling to me ever.”
Wins have been harder to come by of late for Toronto, but Tuesday over the Isles makes two of them in a row, ending a mini-slump in which they didn’t win a game in regulation in five straight and laboured to fill the net.
Goals were the least of the Leafs problems in this one, however, as Trevor Smith capitalized just 22 seconds into the game and, despite a lot of the play ending up in Toronto’s zone, the goaltending mismatch made for a lopsided game on the scoreboard.
With the win, the Leafs improved to 6-4-1 with Clarkson in the lineup, a stretch during which they’ve lost three centres to injury and suspension but managed to battle through thanks to solid play from call-ups and fill-ins like Smith, who had three points on the night.
Clarkson’s teammates, meanwhile, were visibly excited that he had finally found the back of the net, with netminder Jonathan Bernier flashing a big smile when asked about “the goal” after the game.
“The fans were pretty excited for that one,” Bernier said. “Good to get the first one off. I’m sure there’s more to come.”
“It’s great for him,” Kessel said. “Obviously he’s wanted one, and it was a real nice goal. What a shot.”
“Every player loves to score, I don't care what age group you are,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “I think every player that goes out there loves scoring a goal. It's the ultimate high in the game of hockey.”
Clarkson had posted just three assists in his first 10 games in Toronto, prompting plenty of media questions after he was the team’s big free agent signing in the summer with a seven-year deal for more than $5-million a season.
But his role has been very defence-oriented to date, something that continued on Tuesday, when his line with Smith and Joffrey Lupul started in the defensive zone roughly twice as much as the offensive one at even strength.
(“We're not hiding them,” Carlyle explained afterward. “They're playing up in our lineup, and they're playing against the other team’s top line or what people would consider their second line.”)
Despite that, Clarkson has driven possession fairly well through 11 games, using his body and proving to be good in the corner and at clearing his own end, even if his shot totals are well down from what they were in New Jersey when he was a puck firing machine.
Living up to his contract, given his usage under Carlyle and his production with the Devils, may still be quite difficult, but he has hardly sounded like a player burdened by those expectations.
He continues to preach a simple, team-first mantra, one that appears to have endeared him to his teammates, many of whom are much younger and have little of the kind of experience he does in the league.
“I’m here to win,” Clarkson said, later adding that he felt his experience helped him with the slump. “Right now, I’m lucky enough to have played in the league long enough that I haven’t scored in 10 games [before]. I’ve been through it. I felt good on the ice, all 10 of those games…
“The way I play the game is from the top of that [faceoff] circle down. I try to hold onto the puck and win battles. And in my own zone. I knew eventually [the goal] would come. It’s definitely a good feeling to get it out of the way. But the big thing is winning that game.”
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