Chop down a big tree and you’d be surprised what you can see. A chance to take a 2-1 series lead in a best-of-seven playoff series against the Boston Bruins; a city waiting with arms dead tired after nine years but still wide open and yours to own like nobody’s owned it since guys like Wendell and Killer and Tie.
Mostly, Mikhail Grabovski seemed to suggest, it was about the sun.
“It’s almost summer, there’s sunshine outside ... I will enjoy this moment,” the Toronto Maple Leafs centre said on Sunday, an unfiltered and almost serene happiness apparent in his second language. “Usually, I’m playing in the [world hockey championships] now.”
There is sunshine, Toronto. It was one goal and one game but when Phil Kessel was sprung free on Saturday night, head coach Randy Carlyle finally getting him away from Zdeno Chara, it suddenly seemed as if all was possible for the Leafs ahead of Monday.
Kessel vs. his Bruins hoo-doo has been a dominant storyline since he was traded to Toronto from Boston but the truth is it is Chara, the Bruins’ redwood defenceman, who typically writes himself all over games between the two teams. “A monster player,” is how Carlyle referred to him after an optional practice.
Chara, he who blocks out the sun, who is always, it seems, between you and the goal.
The Leafs get the last line change on Monday, which in addition to Carlyle’s line juggling ought to allow them to force the issue against Chara.
Things were made a little easier for the Leafs on Saturday because Andrew Ference served his suspension for Game 1’s elbow on Grabovski, necessitating the splitting up of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. That won’t be the case on Monday, and Carlyle knows that his team won’t be able to dodge Chara on every shift if it wants to take the lead in its Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Truth is, he wants to see them take the initiative physically. “It’s not always a matter of big hits,” Carlyle said. “I look at it as stopping progression, and anybody can do that. It’s about getting in the way as opposed to asking somebody like Mikhail Grabovski to hit [Chara]. That’s not realistic.”
There was considerable concern coming into this series about whether Carlyle would be able to strike a balance between the circus-sideshow fighting provided by the likes of Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren and the useful willingness to engage that is important in the playoffs. Key to that is getting intelligent physical play from everyone, including the more slight players such as Grabovski, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak.
“I mean, I’m not going to crush guys, especially him, but you can use body position to slow a guy like [Chara] down or use your body as a shield to gain extra time,” Bozak said.
Added Kadri: “It plays into everyone’s game. It’s not just Chara ... it’s every single person on the ice. You don’t need a huge lick on someone – even though if someone’s lined up, you want to finish the hit – but you can look to slow up a guy on the fore-check or in the neutral zone. If you even just step in front of a guy, the players behind you will get more time to make a play with the puck.”
While their playoff thirst isn’t nine years in length, Grabovski, Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin are among the longest-serving Leafs, and they have a sense of the significance of Monday’s game. After he arrived at the ACC on Sunday, Bozak saw a videotape of the reaction of fans gathered in Maple Leaf Square on Saturday night.
It was cool, he said.
“And a lot of people are talking to us on Twitter,” said Bozak, who joined the team in 2009-10 “We’re super-excited. We believe we should be here.”
Kadri said Monday’s crowd will be “excited, eager ... anxious. And,” he added, “we want to use them as a seventh man.”
Chara’s the guy who is capable of blocking out that, too.