TORONTO – It felt like the old days for David Clarkson.
His mission, if he chose to accept it, was to help the Toronto Maple Leafs shut down Sidney Crosby on Saturday night.
“It reminded me of my first couple of years and playing with (Jay) Pandolfo and (John) Madden against those guys,” Clarkson said, reminiscing about his time with the New Jersey Devils.
Clarkson, Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland, with help from defenceman Dion Phaneuf, were tasked with stopping the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The Leafs held Crosby and his linemates without a point.
Mission accomplished. It was just the second time in 11 games Crosby didn’t register at least a point.
“We’re not always worried about one guy, but when the coach had put our line out there against him we knew what he was doing,” Clarkson said. “When the coach puts you out there to do a job and wanted us to shut down that line, you’ve got to take whatever direction the coach wants you to play or whatever you’ve got to do, you’ve got to take it to heart and that’s your job for that night.”
Previously only the Colorado Avalanche had kept Crosby off the score sheet, and that was due in large part to a spectacular goaltending effort by Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Penguins captain leads the NHL with 18 points.
“The amazing thing to me is how solid he’s playing,” coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday afternoon. “There’s not a sniffing for offence or looking for goals or taking an easy way out. It’s good, solid, hard hockey. We’re counting on him right now to play against other teams’ top lines and tough minutes and tough situations, and he continues to do amazing things.”
Crosby was sharp early against the Leafs on Saturday night, but Bolland shadowed him and eventually the frustration seemed to build up. Bolland knew that was his role.
“Just staying on top of him, just being sure you know where is and you know when he’s on the ice,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready.”
When Crosby got to the next layer of defence, Phaneuf was ready, too. Along with Carl Gunnarsson, Toronto’s captain and No. 1 defenceman often drew the assignment of being on the ice the same as Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis.
“There are tough minutes for him to accumulate,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “We think that he does a heck of a job for our hockey club, or else we wouldn’t be using him in those situations. I know that it seems to be that there’s a love-hate type of relationship at certain times, but there’s a lot of love shown from our part as far as a coaching staff.”
And Phaneuf has a lot of love, or at least respect, for Crosby and what he has accomplished. Naturally he was on top of his game.
“I’ve played against Sid a long time,” Phaneuf said. “I think he’s the top player in the league. Obviously there’s a lot of great players but he keeps getting better. He can score, he’s an unbelievable passer, and he sees the ice and makes a lot happen when he doesn’t have a lot of room because he’s always keyed on.”
It’s a bit easier to key on Crosby given the Penguins have been without wingers James Neal and Beau Bennett and until Friday Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang.
“The injuries we’ve had forced (us) in some situations to lean on 87 in a lot of different areas,” Bylsma said after the Penguins’ 4-1 loss. “To play against other teams’ top lines, it’s a lot of minutes he’s logged, 71’s logged.”
No. 71 is Evgeni Malkin, who was flying from the drop of the puck against the Leafs. Injuries to Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin have essentially made Toronto a two-line team, which put the onus on James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel to slow down Malkin’s line, too.
Kadri, replacing Bozak on the top line, enjoyed the challenge of playing heads-up against Malkin.
“He’s a world-class player, and it’s hard to cover him, especially how big and how skilled he is,” Kadri said. “If one guy got beat, there was another guy there to help out. That’s what the game is all about.”
It’s certainly what Phaneuf’s game is all about on the blue-line. Carlyle complimented the 28-year old—an impending unrestricted free agent—for settling his game down and growing into the captaincy.
That showed against the Penguins.
“That’s why Dion’s one of our leaders,” Clarkson said. “You look at every other team we play against, when they have their top line on the ice, we want him out there. He plays physical, and when you’re playing against other teams’ top lines, you want that. You want to make it hard on them. He’s done a great job of that over his career.”