Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson has elected to go with the hot hand in goal Thursday night, as his club tries to quash the Winnipeg Jets in a crucial home game at the Air Canada Centre.
Jonas Gustavsson will get his second consecutive start after the Monster earned Wilson’s confidence in a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning this week, the coach said as the Leafs thrilled more than 700 fans at an outdoors practice at a revamped Sunnydale Acres rink Wednesday.
The Leafs, who went 5-for-5 in penalty-killing against Tampa after a miserable 64-per-cent rating in December, have experienced a number of changes as they embarked undefeated in 2012. Besides revamping the penalty kill, they have put tough veteran Colton Orr on waivers and welcomed back Colby Armstrong onto the practice ice after two weeks of sitting out because of concussion.
“Gustavsson’s been playing well for a long time. He struggled a bit in October, but he’s given us some good games and gives us just as good a chance to win,” Wilson said. “As long as he keeps winning, he’ll keep playing.”
“If Reims [James Reimer, who has fought concussion symptoms and inconsistent play]goes in and gets hot, he’s going to play … but the Monster will play again [against Winnipeg]”
The Jets this time last season were beginning a slow, painful slide into non-playoff territory as the Atlanta Thrashers. This season, instead of playing before a lot of empty seats, they have full houses at home in Winnipeg, and the Eastern Conference’s best home record at 14-6-1. That’s No. 4 in the NHL.
They’re trying to convert that to success on the road. Whereas the Leafs play nine of 10 at home, Winnipeg plays nine out of its 13 January games on the road. Away from home, the Jets ranked 25th in the NHL going into their game Wednesday night against the Canadiens in Montreal.
The loss of Orr and his million-dollar contract won’t much change Toronto’s makeup. He didn’t add much offence, had a legacy of concussions and in large measure duplicated the role of Toronto’s pugnacious Jay Rosehill.
“He’ll have to play with the [AHL]Marlies for a while,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back and he hasn’t had many opportunities to play. But now he’ll get to play in situations he hasn’t had a chance to play in before.”
Armstrong suffered a concussion Dec. 17 and the 29-year-old forward kept it to himself for two days until he vomited during a workout on a stationary bike. He’s still 7 to 10 days away from playing – if he’s ready, Wilson said.
“I wanted to play bad,” Armstrong said of keeping the symptoms to himself. “I’m glad I’m better now. I was shut down for two weeks. I slowly got better every day.
“I would have handled it differently … but I honestly didn’t know,” he said, looking back at “dizziness, shakiness in my head, a foggy cloud when I did exercise. … Obviously, it was a serious thing.”
The outdoors skate was an experience most of the Leafs enjoyed. Mayor Rob Ford, who was on hand for the dedication of the rebuilt facility (the Leafs’ Team Up Foundation and club sponsor RONA contributed almost $200,000 to the project), said he’d like to see the NHL’s outdoors Winter Classic come to Toronto.
“It’s something we want to do in Toronto and we’ve been vocal about that. … The league knows we want to do it,” added Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Leafs’ owner.
“We’re looking forward to a number of events leading up to our 100th anniversary in 2017. ... We’ve got one building that would work – that’s BMO Field – but it’s got 21,000 seats and that makes it tougher to do. … We’ve talked about expanding BMO field right now but it’s not on the table right now, but perhaps in the future. … We’d love to make it work, even with 21,000 seats”.
The Classic is a home game for the host city “but the league basically buys us out of the game [TV broadcast rights and seating] then has the extra costs of building a rink and staging the event and bringing people in for the event,” Anselmi said. “… It gets really expensive. It works with 30-40-50,000-seat stadiums; 20,000 is more of an challenge.”
Wilson said he understood Toronto was being considered as an opponent for a Detroit-based Classic game, “but if we’re involved, I’d go anywhere except the Arctic Circle.”
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