TORONTO – As Mikhail Grabovski sprawled out on the Air Canada Centre ice in a pool of his own blood, the only thing he could think was: Why Toronto?
Of all places, why would it be here that he would get cut for 20 stitches by a skate that came dangerously close to his right eye? What is it about this city and the Leafs that is out to get him? Is this place cursed?
Fortunately, Grabovski would be all right. He was nothing if not tough during five seasons with the Maple Leafs, so absolutely no one was surprised to see the Washington Capitals centre return after having David Clarkson’s skate blade inflict a nasty gash across his cheek and the bridge of his nose.
Eventually, that will be just one more scar left on the 29-year-old by time spent in Toronto. For as much as Grabovski has moved on to greener pastures with the Caps it’s clear that he still hasn’t completely come to grips with his departure from this city.
"It was pretty hard to play (this game) because I know all of the guys," Grabovski said following Washington’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Leafs on Saturday. "It was like practice for me because every guy tried to talk to me and I talked to them. Nice guys.
"I’m happy we play only one time in Toronto this year."
This has always been a special place for a man born in East Germany and raised in Belarus. Grabovski was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, but fell in love with Toronto while playing for their farm team in nearby Hamilton.
That is when he first visited the city and came to believe it was his destiny to play here. An extremely rare trade between the Leafs and Habs at the 2008 draft made that dream a reality and life was pretty charmed until he received a call the day before his wedding in early July and found out that the Leafs were using a compliance buyout on his contract.
In Washington, he has found a system of play that is better suited to his talents than the way Leafs coach Randy Carlyle wanted him to play last season. It’s no coincidence that Grabovski is currently on pace for a career year despite seeing similar minutes.
However, he still refers to Toronto as his hometown and plans to return to his apartment here in the summer. He also admits that he’s been thinking about his old team this year. Heck, he even referred to last year’s playoff series against Boston as the "best time in my life."
Given all that, it’s little wonder why he reacted so angrily after getting bought out – delivering a tirade he only half-heartedly acknowledged he would change now if he could.
"It’s like so emotional, you know, and we all want to win and do for this (team) everything what we can do," he said. "From that period of time I think the years I spent in Toronto I try to win Stanley Cup and play for the best and that whole emotion (would) probably feel the same."
The only emotion he seemed to be feeling after Saturday’s game was one of relief. This night had been lingering in the back of his mind and he was clearly glad it was over. In fact, it was so all-encompassing that Grabovski barely even seemed fazed by the two big cuts and goosebump that the incident with Clarkson left on his face.
That happened towards the end of the second period when Grabovski fell to the ice and was accidentally struck on his way down. His performance had barely registered to that point, but he looked much more engaged after returning early in the third period.
"He doesn’t get enough credit for how tough he is," Caps goalie Braden Holtby said. "He battles through a lot. He fights hard through every game."
Added captain Alex Ovechkin: "He’s a warrior."
It certainly made for an unusual, if not memorable, homecoming.
About the only thing the night could have used was Grabovski being given a chance to take an attempt in the shootout. He was once a go-to guy for the Leafs in that department and Caps coach Adam Oates had sent him out on six other tiebreakers already this season.
Even Leafs goalies James Reimer expected to see No. 84 coming in on him.
"Honestly I thought he would shoot," Reimer said. "I don’t know why he didn’t shoot. Maybe his injury was getting to him – I mean, his face looked a little banged-up. But I thought for sure he’d be jumping over (the boards) in the first three.
"He didn’t and who knows what would’ve happened?"
We’re only left to guess.