Islander fans circled this one on the calendar that fateful day they lost their captain and for the second time this season had the last laugh spanking the Leafs 6-1 at Nassau Coliseum Thursday.
They handed them an equally humiliating 4-0 loss at Scotiabank Arena in December.
Two hours before game time fans had the tailgate BBQ’s fired up, beer flowing, chants echoing around the parking lots pumping themselves up to let John Tavares really know how they felt because after 9-years he decided to play for the team he grew up worshiping.
Sweaters with name plates like Judas, Traitor, Pajama Boy (my favourite) to rants “JT sucks” (very original), “We don’t need you,” “Lee is our captain” and one to really rub it in “Barzy’s better” were shouted, screamed and howled until the final buzzer. Grown men dressed in pajama bottoms; one chap had a baby bear, pjs, soother and blanket; others one-piece bedtime wear; they were obnoxiously loud and vulgar to anyone wearing a Leafs 91 sweater.
During the warm up you can usually spot hundreds if not thousand of visiting blue and white followers surrounding the away end; not tonight. It was a sea of Islander fans, signs of disapproval pressed against the glass; the rink half full, jeered, booed roared obscenities and mocked Tavares throughout the whole 15-minute pregame skate every time he touched the puck.
He looked rattled and in all fairness who wouldn’t be? This guy gave his all throughout a terrible period in team history with poor management, bad players, no playoff wins to speak of, yet 91 gave them hope. OK boo, but enough is enough, it was tiring after a while and half the morons creating the disturbance probably couldn’t name five players on the team but decided to guzzle some liquid courage and swear at an ex-player for a couple hours.
Having said that, the Isles were full marks for the win, feeding off the electrifying atmosphere that was on par with Las Vegas, the loudest in the NHL. The vibe was like a game-7 final and while a few idiots carried on, most of the rants, songs (a few directed at the Rangers), cheers, were awesome and the Islander players looked like they were shot out of a cannon each shift they jumped on the ice.
Barry Trotz remolded this team into a version of the Capitals combining skill, hard work and toughness.
The Leafs came out with a solid start but the Isles shut them down with aggressive fore-checking taking advantage of the new bodies in the lineup and had them shying away from the boards and looking over their shoulders.
Toronto was rattled and pushed around again but the puzzling thing about all this is Garret Sparks getting the start. He was blasted in Toronto by this squad earlier in the season and with such an emotionally charged game at stake, why not start him at home against the Oilers? The Islanders are the number one team in the Metro Division, why not have you’re number one goaltender in the barrel?
Teams will be flat some games and tonight Toronto needed a big save that Sparks was incapable of delivering. He is not an NHL caliber goalie at this stage of his career; with three more starts possibly four the team needs a competent back-up net-minder. The points are too valuable to squander away and could mean the difference between home ice and the opponent.
It wasn’t Sparks fault they lost. His team-mates didn’t show up and the worry for management has to be the decision to let skill be the victor over brawn. Two games in two nights are difficult but players have to dig in especially down Kadri upfront and a third of the defensive corps with Dermott and Gardiner out.
Shrug this one off and be extra ready for Buffalo who will be trying to avenge the loss earlier this week. Then games out west starting with the red hot Calgary Flames, followed by Vancouver and Edmonton.
The Leafs have to live by the old Timex ad, “It takes a licking but keeps on ticking.”