VANCOUVER — This is the way scores are settled, fans are kept happy, reputations remain intact, beefs get squashed, and no one gets killed.
It was a matter of when, not if.
Two and half minutes into the second period, Alexandre Burrows streaked down the right wing and tape-to-taped a pass to Sven Baertschi, who delicately touched it through Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen’s legs on the rush.
And within a blink after the Vancouver Canucks opened a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Gubranson made eye contact with Martin and good on his word. (Not literally, of course. That’s insanity.)
Two big, tough hockey players throwing hard rights, stumbling but not falling. Five minutes apiece, life goes on, the crowd goes haywire.
“I’m an honest guy. I’ll always defend what I say,” Gudbranson said, after slugging it out in a 3-2 Vancouver shootout victory.
Not only did Martin call it a good fight, he said the fisticuffs put an end to the chirping — and should deaden the narrative wrought by the dramatic events of Nov. 5, the nasty hits and spears that compelled Stephane Quintal and George Parros of the NHL’s department of player safety to make the trip and watch this one from on high.
“I have a lot of respect for [Gudbranson],” said Martin. “He’s a tough guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a guy I’d have in my corner any day.”
In a league sapped of its enforcers, a night like this proved there is still a place for honourable man-to-man combat. This scrap wasn’t staged right from puck drop, nor did it serve as a catalyst for a night of headhunting and cheap shots.
“Wayne Simmonds, I think I’ve fought him, like, seven times. I’ll go have a conversation with him after games now, so it’s pretty interesting how things work out,” Martin said.
“It’s always great as a player when you get in a fight and your team responds. Makes you feel good. The guys came out and found a way to battle back in the game.”
“That was a real fun game to play in. Fast, lots of chances,” said van Riemsdyk. JVR got the visitors on the board with his 100th goal as a Maple Leaf. “I’ve really enjoyed Toronto. Hopefully I can play here for a lot longer.”
A seemingly offhand comment that deserves a little added weight in light of the winger’s cap-friendly contract being bandied about in trade speculation.
“It wakes everybody up,” Matthews said. “Those are two pretty big guys, so when they go at it, for their respective teams, it motivates everybody to get out and compete.
“We were able to build momentum off of that in the second and third period. We were able to generate chances and get ourselves back in the game.”
The Leafs not only got back in it, they outshot Vancouver 40-24, and would’ve completed the comeback had it not been for a series a stellar saves from Ryan Miller and one beauty in the dying minute by Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher—the 5-foot-10 rookie Martin jumped last month and generated the hoopla.
Of course, this one went to overtime, and then a shootout. Because any event with such lusty crowd participation deserves a double encore.
“Go, Leafs, go!” refrains began to ring out through Rogers Arena a half hour before puck drop and would swell in volume and frequency all Saturday night.
Close your eyes to the sloppy defensive plays and missed passes, and you’d swear you were at a playoff game. The building was just that loud. For both teams.
Not a hit, save, or scoring opportunity slipped by without a roar or a gasp.
Imagine. This was a regular season game between teams that see each other just twice a year. Two of the three worst teams in the NHL last season, you may recall.
“There were almost as many Leafs jerseys as Canucks jerseys,” said Matthews. “The chants and everything—it was an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Mike Babcock was pleased his team salvaged a point and played the right way after laying an egg in Calgary. The fans relished some throwback haymakers, and player safety will fly home without a thing to review.
“It all starts with the national anthem,” said Babcock. “It’s the best one in the league, and that gets you going. The building’s exciting, they’re playing hard, and it was fun.”
Somehow, everyone left satisfied.
Oh, yeah. Almost forgot the two points. Those went to Vancouver.
“It was important to us to win the game,” said Canucks coach Willie Desjardins. “There wasn’t any personal agendas that take precedence over the team.”