Clarkson turning a corner for Leafs, cage and all

Daren Millard, Nick Kypreos and Damien Cox dissect the Toronto Maple Leafs win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When you consider where David Clarkson was a year ago, this hardly rates as a huge concern.

But there the Toronto Maple Leafs winger was taking every possible opportunity to flip up his face shield during Friday’s game at Nationwide Arena. The protective bubble is driving him crazy — teammates have slapped the nickname “fishbowl” on him — and Clarkson even tried to take matters into his own hands this week by skating without it at practice.

“It gets hot inside there,” he explained. “I tried to push to get it off but the doctors here…want me to keep it on for a little bit longer.”

A major issue, he claims, is seeing the ice surface clearly.

Apparently it’s easier to spike a Brussels sprout on your dinner plate with a fork than find a bouncing puck in your feet while looking through the protective plastic.

Despite the discomfort and annoyance, the extra piece of equipment hasn’t held Clarkson back. It certainly didn’t keep him from seeing the Dion Phaneuf point shot that he tipped home on a power play during Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That gave him three goals already on the young season — well ahead of the pace he set last year, when he didn’t score for a third time until his 26th game.

Whatever point you measure back from, Clarkson has taken positive strides. It was here in Columbus where he made his Leafs debut a little over a year ago — the start of a nightmarish season that began after he served a 10-game suspension for jumping off the bench to join a fight in a pre-season contest.

However, even as recently as this pre-season, the outlook for him didn’t look particularly sunny.

It was an ill-advised fight with Buffalo’s Cody McCormick that saw Clarkson suffer a broken orbital bone and put the start of another campaign in jeopardy. The only way for him to play through the injury was with the cage, which won’t be removed until the trainers determine that his face is fully healed.

Randy Carlyle has felt fortunate to have him in the lineup. In addition to putting up some points, Clarkson has been a positive possession player — albeit with an unsustainably high shooting percentage — and seems to have earned back his coach’s trust over the opening 10 games.

“We’d just like him to continue to play strong and be on the puck,” Carlyle said earlier this week. “It’s a much different David Clarkson this year than what we had last year.”

With news of Joffrey Lupul’s broken right hand surfacing only an hour before puck drop against the Blue Jackets, the Leafs desperately need that to continue. He’s now on a line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk and should be able to count on continued power-play opportunities with the top-six thinned out a bit.

Daniel Winnik has also emerged as a capable stop-gap — his goal and two assists on Friday matched a career-best in his 500th NHL game — for a Leafs team that will face much stiffer tests in the days ahead.

Wins over the lowly Buffalo Sabres and an injury-depleted Blues Jackets team might be good for morale, but reality could set in as soon as Saturday night with the Chicago Blackhawks in town.

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The latest injury to the star-crossed Lupul could be almost as big of a blow for the team as it was to the 31-year-old winger. His bottom lip quivered ever-so-slightly as he discussed the “shock” that came with being told that an innocent slip in practice was going to sideline him indefinitely.

“I honestly thought really nothing of it,” said Lupul. “It didn’t cause me a ton of discomfort. We treated it in the morning and truly thought everything was fine. I was coming to the game prepared to play.”

Instead, his hand was bandaged up.

“He’s had a stretch of bad luck, no question about it,” said Leafs GM Dave Nonis.

Clarkson certainly knows a thing or two about that, which is why he’s having no trouble remaining grounded right now. He’s well aware of how quickly fortunes can change.

However, he did allow himself a quick post-game smile when asked about how much different he felt during this trip to Columbus compared to the last one.

“I think the big thing is winning and being healthy,” said Clarkson. “It feels good to be back playing and starting the season on a fresh start. So far, so good.”

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