Leafs getting down and gritty
Lance Hornby, QMI Agency
|Back at practice on Friday in Etobicoke, Mike Komisarek (left) and Mike Brown, a couple of rugged performers, will be activated for Saturday night's contest with the sublimely tough Red Wings at the ACC. (Craig Robertson, QMI Agency)
Never go into a tough exam without a few erasers.
The Maple Leafs, approaching the halfway mark of the season with their best playoff chance in six years, have one of their biggest mental and physical challenges coming Saturday against the fluid Detroit Red Wings. Slowing down the Motor City men is never easy, but at least Toronto will have some muscle-type players returning in that regard.
Winger Mike Brown and defenceman Mike Komisarek have simultaneously been cleared after weeks of recovery from major injuries, back surgery for the former, a broken arm for the latter. And though captain Dion Phaneuf was absent from practice on Friday with a swollen jaw from an errant puck, he is expected to play.
Brown is the kind of player the Wings have in abundance, mid-size, good wheels and hard-hitting. Komisarek is another big body to try and box out the invasive Wings forwards and Phaneuf can hit in open ice and bring a hard shot on the power play — if disciplined Detroit allows even one or two of those.
“It’s a big test,” Komisarek said. “We’re trying to build confidence and momentum, put those together and get our foot in the door. A few days ago, we were on the outside looking in (before winning two at home to start the new year). A few more wins will secure our spot even more.”
The return of Brown and Komisarek will mean some changes and, in the case of Matt Frattin, it was an outright demotion. An exciting young player, Frattin was nonetheless stunted since being dropped to the fourth line and needs more ice time with the Marlies. Brown can do more in that limited role with linemates Darryl Boyce and David Steckel.
“Who wouldn’t want Brownie?” defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “He’s one of those guys you love off the ice and on it.”
When healthy — and his robust play often takes a toll — Brown makes the decision to cut enforcer Colton Orr an easier one for the club to live with.
“I can play, as well as do the fighting and physical things,” Brown said. “They’ve had faith in me in the penalty-kill and I can get the forecheck going, get in on the cycle. The game now is all power play and penalty killing and you have to roll through four lines to keep the top two fresh.”
Komisarek, who made it back a few days earlier than expected, sees his role as helping goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s sight lines against the likes of Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom.
“Those guys have made a living in and around the front of the net,” Komisarek said. “We have to have good body position, good sticks to tie them up and let the Monster or whoever is in net see the shots so they don’t get second opportunities. We want to block shots, as well. We have some big men back there and I think we match up well.”
Defenceman Korbinian Holzer was also returned to the Marlies on Friday, ahead of Phaneuf’s return from a dangerous-looking incident in Thursday’s 4-0 win over Winnipeg. Gustavsson’s shutout was almost in the books when a Jet’s point shot caught Phaneuf flush on the cheek. He eventually skated off, but spent Friday at home.
“There’s no break or anything like that,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We’re listing him as day-to-day, but I expect him to play.”
Phaneuf, Brown, Cody Franson, Joffrey Lupul and Matthew Lombardi have all spent time in the Western Conference trying to solve the Wings.
They’re once again among the league leaders in vital statistics, fifth in goals, third-best in goals-against and second lowest in penalty minutes per game, Detroit is headed for a 21st consecutive playoff appearance.
“As a team, they create speed by moving the puck fast,” Wilson said. “And the one thing the Wings have got and have always drafted, are big power forwards, the Franzens, the Holmstroms. We’re still a ways from that, but a lot of teams look to Detroit as a blueprint.”
Applying the perfect touch of grey is defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, who turns 42 in the spring, yet has 23 points and is a plus-17. That’s better than any Leafs rearguard.
“Why doesn’t he just retire and give us all a break?,” joked Wilson. “I’ve used him as an example on video through the years. If you don’t have good things about your own team to show, give them Lindstrom highlights. He’s not a physical player at all, but he defends as well as anyone.”