OTTAWA - There might not have been a guy on the ice at Scotiabank Place who better appreciated a 12-9 pond hockey game and getting booed lustily in the process.
Toronto Maple Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul missed almost a full year of hockey after back troubles and a post-surgery infection.
He always figured he would be able to overcome it all and resume his career, but to be on the ice Sunday -- and potting two goals in Team Chara’s win over Team Alfredsson -- was beyond even his most lofty expectation.
“I didn’t know what the future held for me as far as hockey went. To be here, somewhere where I’ve never been before, post-injury, is almost surreal,” he said in the jammed Team Chara dressing room.
“I never would have guessed it. I knew I could come back and play, but to play at a higher level than ever before, it feels pretty good. The season is not over and there’s a lot of hockey to be played, but this is definitely a good accomplishment.”
Lupul, who is tied for fifth in NHL scoring with 52 points, embraced the spirit of the weekend. He was booed as Chara’s assistant captain when he made selections at the Fantasy Draft Thursday night and again, along with Leafs teammates Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, during the game as Senators fans embraced the spirit of the Battle of Ontario.
“The weekend is, first of all, it’s for the fans. Everything we do is for the fans, the behind the scenes, the interviews, wearing a microphone during the game, if you’re going to do all that stuff, you’re not really going to expect a competitive 3-2 game,” said Lupul. “This event is about more than just the game. It’s to show the fans another side of the guys and have fun. I think everyone in the crowd today had fun. I know I had fun today wearing the microphone.”
The Leafs will resume play after the all-star break in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, though they have the same number of points (55) as the seventh-place Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils in eighth. The Leafs have played one more game than either team.
Lupul and Kessel, who scored his first all-star goal and added assists on both of Lupul’s goals, had plenty of room Sunday, a luxury that will be diminishing by greater amounts with each game as the NHL enters its stretch run.
“We had a lot of fun and we did all right,” said Kessel. “It was a good time out there.”
Lupul was quick to put his game face on after frivolity of the all-star game had begun to quickly evaporate and he looked at the road ahead for the Leafs.
“We have to do what it takes to get our team into the playoffs. That’s kind of the bottom line there. What we’ve accomplished in the first half is good and to have the amount of points we have and play in the all-star game is great, but at the end of the season if our team doesn’t make it into the playoffs, it’s tough to be proud of personal accomplishments. This is where the intensity has to pick up and maybe we’re not going to score at the same rate as we did in the first half, but we can still help our team win games.”
With the success Lupul and Kessel have enjoyed so far this season -- Kessel is just a point behind Lupul in the scoring race -- they have begun attracting more attention from the opposition.
“They’re just paying a little more attention, trying to get out different defencemen. We’ve noticed guys, especially with Phil, playing more physical. That’s just going to continue and in the playoffs, that will just pick up again. We both know it’s coming and we have to be up for the challenge,” said Lupul.
“It’s our job (to score) regardless of who we’re playing against. If you’re going to play against a guy like Chara all night, you’ve got to know that right when you get to the rink and be up for the challenge. It’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy. But we know it’s coming and have to prepared and we have to produce.”