Injury-free Reichel steps up his game

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:51 PM ET


 A YEAR or so ago, a few media critics were prepared to tar and feather Maple Leafs centre Robert Reichel.

 They couldn't understand how a player who makes $3.25 million US could score only 12 goals last season and come up with a subpar performance against the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs.

 The unassuming Czech Olympian, whose NHL travels took him from the Calgary Flames to the New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes before landing in Toronto in 2001, disclosed reasons for his disappointing showing last season.

 "I had two injuries that affected my play," he told me in an exclusive interview. "I had a bad shoulder and a bad knee. I didn't tell anybody about it because I wanted to play and help the club. Some media people started to write articles about me without knowing what was wrong with me."

 Reichel merely wanted to set the record straight as far as last year's showing was concerned, paling in comparison to the two 40-goal seasons in Calgary.

 This year there was a dramatic change. Pat Quinn, the much maligned head coach of the Leafs, showed a lot of confidence in Reichel and has him playing on the power play, killing penalties and playing a regular shift, something Reichel seemed incapable of doing last season.

 Suddenly, he emerged as one of Toronto's top four forwards and was even selected first star of one game against the Ottawa Senators.

 "I'm now playing a different style of hockey," he said. "I feel 100% and I enjoy playing with Tie (Domi) and Chad (Kilger). Offensively, I try to feed the puck to Tie who is a fast skater, bumps bodies, creates openings and scoring opportunities.

 "But I'm also now a disciplined defensive style player. I enjoy the extra ice time and also killing penalties. It was gratifying that our penalty killers were able to stop the NHL's No. 1 power play (Ottawa). The defensive style and the penalty killing was our strength in Litvinov (Czech Republic) where I played before arriving in Calgary, also after I left the Islanders and before signing with the Maple Leafs in 2001."

 Reichel, whose contract expires at the end of this season, wouldn't mind remaining in Toronto.

 "I'm very happy here," Reichel said. "My family (wife Karin and children Christian, 5, and Diana, 3) likes it here and the Maple Leafs have an ambitious program for the future."

 What about the series with the Philadelphia Flyers?

 "Philadelphia is a good team," he said. "But so are we. I think the chances of advancing to the next round are 50-50. It was evident in that first game that both teams had a chance to win it. They did and now it will be up to us to try and win the second game in Philadelphia."

 Even if the Leafs were to lose tonight's physical battle, the war wouldn't be lost. Were the Montreal Canadiens not down 3-1 to the Boston Bruins and then kicked butt in three successive games?

 GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

 It may be an accepted fact that a coach in the NHL should be replaced after a few years, but I still cannot understand why Jacques Martin was fired in Ottawa. Was it his fault that the Senators didn't pick up Curtis Joseph, who was available on waivers, or make a deal for Olie Kolzig? Or was either salary too high for owner Eugene Melnyk?...Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Club owner Jack Dominico hired two female physiotherapists in Sandy Price and Karin Innes. The baseball Leafs hold a gala seminar on May 8 at he Wyndham Bristol Place and open the season on May 9 at Christie Pits.


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