TORONTO - If there’s a silver lining to Carl Gunnarsson’s season-ending injury, it might be that the Maple Leafs defenceman doesn’t have to worry about chasing Steven Stamkos around the ice at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.
In the last home game of the regular season, one which disappointed the Leafs front office but was not a stunning surprise to those who predicted Toronto would miss the playoffs again, the Leafs will try to stop Stamkos from adding to his eye-popping goal total.
The Markham native was at an NHL-best 58 and counting before the Lightning visited the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
Gunnarsson will be watching from the sideline. He suffered a separated left shoulder in Buffalo versus the Sabres on Tuesday night when rookie Marcus Foligno barrelled over him behind the Leafs net on the opening shift.
“I went down for the puck and it was kind of wobbling,” Gunnarsson said. “I took a look both sides and saw him coming, and went to make a play. I knew he was coming, but I guess I tried to settle the puck a little bit, a split second too long, I thought I could spin off it in a better way, but he got me good and I have myself to blame.”
Gunnarsson went out for one more shift but realized quickly he was done. Whether he has to have surgery has not been definitively determined, but the initial prognosis called for rehabilitation of up to six weeks. Gunnarsson has no injury history with the shoulder.
When he got to the bench after Foligno laid him out, Gunnarsson was not happy with himself.
“I was pissed off, I was mad at myself for letting (myself) get injured,” Gunnarsson said on Wednesday. “I did not protect myself the way I should have. I just wanted to go out there and keep playing. Turned out I could not do it.”
The Leafs, of course, can’t brag about much when it comes to keeping the opposing top players off the scoreboard, but if it did happen this season, chances are good it was done with Gunnarsson and partner Dion Phaneuf on the ice. Gunnarsson was the Leafs’ steadiest defenceman, which loses its shine somewhat when it’s remembered that Toronto has given up 258 goals.
But for Gunnarsson, it was a season of progression. He averaged 21 minutes 42 seconds of ice time, more than two minutes over his average of 19:29 in his first two NHL seasons.
With a salary cap hit next season of $1.325-million US, Gunnarsson is more than affordable.
“I played the way I wanted to at the start of the season,” Gunnarsson, 25, said. “I got so much time on the ice, it was nothing I expected, it was like a bonus.
“Compared to last year, I think I played better and I was getting a lot of confidence from the coaches. They put me in a lot of different situations and put me against the top lines.”
Mike Komisarek has been paired with Phaneuf in Gunnarsson’s absence and likely will see plenty of Stamkos on Thursday evening.
“We have to get in his face,” Komisarek said. “It’s not going to take a particular defenceman or pairing to eliminate a guy like that, you want to have all five guys aware of where he is.”
Coach Randy Carlyle has seen it all in the NHL, whether as a player or from behind a bench, but what Stamkos has done has impressed him.
“A 50-goal scorer is not a normal thing in the league now,” Carlyle said. “It’s quite an accomplishment. The one thing he does not shy away from is work ethic and being first on the puck. It will be a task for us to keep him silent in our building.”
Having Gunnarsson in the lineup might have increased the chances of that.