TORONTO – A potential comeback by the Toronto Maple Leafs failed, but there’s hope one of the players the team desperately needs to succeed is on the right track.
After rallying from a two-goal deficit early in the third, the Leafs ultimately fell 4-3 to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in pre-season NHL action before 18,878 fans at the Air Canada Centre.
Jason Blake scored a pair of goals for Toronto (2-5-1), while Mikhail Grabovski also scored for the Leafs, who dropped their second game in as many nights to the Wings after a 5-3 setback Friday night in the Motor City.
Grabovski, acquired in a trade this summer from Montreal, leads the Leafs with four goals in the pre-season. Blake spent the night playing right-wing on a line with Alexei Ponikarovski and centre Nik Antropov, who had assists on both of Blake’s goals.
“Coming in this year it’s a fresh start for me, I’m just going to work as hard as I can and hopefully good things will happen,” said Blake, who scored just 15 goals in 82 games last year.
Dan Cleary sparked the Wings (5-1-2) with two goals including the game-winner while Jan Mursak and Nicklas Kronwall also scored for Detroit.
Blake and Grabovski both scored early in the third to pull Toronto into a 3-3 tie, but Cleary’s decisive marker came just 35 seconds after Grabovski had tied the game.
After going scoreless in his first four pre-season games, Blake’s output offered a glimmer of hope that his miserable first year in Toronto will be succeeded by a much more productive campaign this season.
Despite the fact he in San Jose last year, first-year Leafs coach Ron Wilson was clearly aware of the criticisms levied against Blake last season, most notably that he was taking too many long-distance shots.
Wilson, who’s coached Blake before on U.S. national teams, has seen some progress from the right-winger who scored a career-high 40 goals with the Islanders one year before signing a five-year deal with Toronto.
“He’s going hard to the net, I think he’s doing things he didn’t do last year,” Wilson said. “But I can only comment on what I saw on TV and I spoke to him about it. The Jason Blake that I knew on national teams and watching when he was scoring went hard to the net and competed and last year I thought he kind of circled the wagons all the time and took a lot of perimeter shots that were a waste of time.”
Blake’s problems last year certainly weren’t limited to the ice. Just as the season began, it was revealed he was suffering from a rare, but treatable, form of leukemia.
The 35-year-old is Toronto’s oldest skater and wants to be a leader on a team that shed so many familiar faces in the off-season.
“(I’m) trying to. I mean, being a leader, there’s all different sorts of different leaders, it doesn’t matter if you have the ‘C’ or the ‘A’ on your shirt, you know, obviously they haven’t handed those out yet, but for me it’s just lead by example,” he said. “I need to be the best player Jason Blake can be and that’s working hard and doing the little things and making sure I’m using my speed and that’s all I can do.”
So is he a better player this year?
“I feel better, I don’t know if I’m a better player, but I feel better and that’s probably half the battle,” Blake said. “Last year, mentally, I wasn’t in it, this year I feel better.”
As for the 24-year-old Grabovski, he continues to cement his place at centre on one of the team’s top two lines.
“He’s going to be a very good player for us,” said Wilson, adding he’s trying to push the youngster to see how he responds to different situations.
Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph didn’t exactly redeem himself on the heels of a bad start last week in St. Louis. Mursak’s goal in particular was very soft, coming on a slapshot from a sharp angle.
The 41-year-old, who’s slated for backup duty behind Vesa Toskala, isn’t worried, however.
“More competitive, tonight, for myself for sure and twice as good as the last game, let’s hope that continues,” said Joseph, who stopped 18 of 22 shots against the Wings and is 0-2-0 this pre-season. “It’s just timing and coming off a long summer.”
NOTES: The Wings iced a very watered-down lineup, as Pavel Datsyuk didn’t dress because of a tweaked groin. Captain Nicklas Lidstrom and sniper Henrik Zetterberg were also on the sidelines. … Toronto’s Ian White, a natural defenceman, spent the night at right wing. …The Leafs play their final pre-season game Sunday afternoon when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets”.