By Mike Brophy
No Sidney Crosby. No Jordan Staal. And yet the Pittsburgh Penguins still had one very special weapon – Evgeni Malkin. The man assigned to shut him down was none other than Mikhail Grabovski.
Most people consider Grabovski something of an offensive force, but on this night, it was his defensive skills that were being called into action. Check the final tally and you’ll discover both Malkin and Grabovski concluded the game with a goal and an assist. However, Grabovski was plus-1 and Malkin was minus-1.
Oh, and then there’s the little matter of Grabovski’s Toronto Maple Leafs beating Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3. That’s what it’s all about, right? Give the edge to Grabovski.
As the Maple Leafs continued their fine start to the 2011-12 season, the team’s second line of Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur is finally beginning to find its legs. If this team is to make the playoffs, it is important for the Toronto’s depth to play a significant role and Grabovski is a big part of that scenario.
“I think Grabo is one of the most underrated players in the league,” said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf. “He’s so consistent in both ends of the rink. He’s got great offensive skill, but defensively he’s a real workhorse and a really smart player. He’s a big reason why we have success. The biggest thing with Grabo is how he competes every night. He shows up and he competes on every shift. The players on our team respect him.”
Grabovski said he welcomed the challenge of going head-to-head with Malkin, the NHL’s rookie of the year in 2006-07, scoring champ in 2008-09 and Conn Smythe winner as the playoff’s top player the same year. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Malkin towers over the 5-foot-11 and 180-pound Grabovski, but that did not discourage him. In fact, he figured there’s a potential advantage to playing against an opponent who is mainly thinking offence.
“If you play against great players you always think about defence first,” Grabovski said. “It’s much easier sometimes, I think, to play against great players, because they want to score, too. And because of that they sometimes give you an opportunity to score. You wait for them to make a mistake and hope you can take advantage of that chance.”
Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said he felt Grabovski met the challenge of being matched up against one of the most talented individuals in the league. He also talked about how he sometimes moves players from line-to-line.
“Grabo, when you give him an assignment like that, he’s really focused, and he dug in,” Wilson said. “I think Grabo’s better than Malkin on faceoffs and he did a good job there. What I could do for faceofs in our zone was put (Dave) Steckel out there – I don’t think Steckel lost one draw to Malkin all night – and as soon as we’d get the puck I’d make a change and put Kulemin back out there. They fore-check and back-check – it’s a really fast line and they’re coming together – and had an excellent game.”
Grabovski is in a contract year so, naturally, he wants to put his best foot forward. Scoring goals is what puts money in the bank – and he’s coming off a career-best 29 goals last season – but on this night he embraced his defensive assignment. That said, Grabovski was a little ticked off at his opponent.
“Of course I enjoy playing against Malkin, but not so much tonight because he made a bad play on one faceoff,” said Grabovski, extending his arm to show a reddish and slightly swollen mark just above his wrist where Malkin had slashed him. “I didn’t like that.”
If Grabovski was a difference-maker with his solid two-way play, then so was Phaneuf who registered two assists and led the Leafs with 27:23 ice time. Phaneuf has had a huge impact in the team’s early success at both ends of the rink.
“By a country mile I think he’s the best defenceman in the league,” Wilson boasted. “It’s not even close right now and his numbers show that. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin; he’s comfortable being the captain and he’s happy. I think without taking away from his play, the way Carl Gunnarsson has made Dion’s job a lot easier. He’s free to attack and he knows Carl’s going to cover. If there’s a 2-on-1 Carl will find a way to snuff it out. It has freed Dion to play the best I have ever seen him. I was in San Jose when he was up for rookie of the year and I never thought he played very well defensively, but he’s kind of figured that part out – using the stick very well.”
FROM THE MATS TO THE ROOF: Former Leafs captain Mats Sundin will have his No. 13 honoured Feb. 11. He will be the 16th Leaf to have his number raised to the ceiling. Sundin was introduced during the game and was appropriately given a heart-felt standing ovation.
TIE TO THE MAX: Tie Domi was one of the best fighters in NHL history, but his kid, Max, is making it on skill. Not that Tie didn’t have some skill – I have to say that or he’ll punch me the next time I see him. Max is a rookie with the London Knights of the OHL who scored three goals in his first game and has eight goals and 17 points with 14 penalty minutes in 15 games. His dad scored one goal and two points with 79 penalty minutes in 1986-87, his rookie year with the Peterborough Petes. Max is 5-foot-9, which is pretty close to his dad’s height, but Tie said the kid is, “193 pounds – he’s all legs and butt.”
GOAL-SCORER’S SHOWDOWN: The NHL’s top goal-scorers, Phil Kessel of the Leafs and James Neal of the Penguins, faced off for the first time this year and it was a bit of an anticlimactic bout. Through the first 40 minutes neither registered a shot on goal. In the third period, though, Kessel fired No. 10 of the year to take the lead.
Coach Wilson was impressed.
“Goal-scorers, if they get openings like that, they’re going to put the puck in,” Wilson said. “He had to find a different way to do it tonight because they always had a guy like Paul Martin on the ice and Phil’s not going to beat Paul Martin; nobody does. He has to wait for situations like the one that popped up for us. It’s either going to be on the power play or on a little breakdown in their coverage and Phil was wide open.”