TORONTO – Matt Stajan is hoping to turn a successful homecoming into a season-changing event.
The struggling Calgary Flames forward scored in his return to Air Canada Centre on Saturday and was all smiles after the team pulled out a 2-1 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was just the third goal of the season for Stajan, who pumped his fists emphatically after shovelling a rebound past J.S. Giguere with less than seven minutes to play in regulation.
“One of the best feelings I’ve had—relief, excitement,” said Stajan. “It’s been a tough year and to see that one go in and make a difference in the game, it feels really good for sure.”
The 27-year-old grew up in nearby Mississauga and spent the first seven years of his pro career playing for the hometown Maple Leafs. He was dealt to the Flames last Jan. 31 in the trade that brought Dion Phaneuf to Toronto.
Stajan’s struggles this season began in training camp when he suffered a separated shoulder. Despite scoring on Saturday, he remains on pace for a career-worst total of six goals.
“It started with an injury and I haven’t had confidence,” said Stajan. “You don’t want to make excuses but I just haven’t been getting the bounces. It’s just the way the season’s gone … I’ve been working as hard as I ever have, trying to get out of this rut.
“Hopefully tonight I’ll start building and going forward from there.”
The game was also a big one for goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who drew criticism from coach Brent Sutter after allowing a couple weak goals during a loss in Carolina earlier this week.
The veteran looked poised and confident in his return to the goal, finishing with 32 saves in regulation. He also stopped two of four attempts in the shootout and earned the victory when Olli Jokinen beat Giguere with Calgary’s third goal in the tiebreaker.
He wanted to play well after having Sutter question his play.
“Of course you hear it, I can’t lie about that,” said Kiprusoff. “You can’t worry. I know pretty well myself what I have to do. Yeah, I’ve been working hard.
“I felt pretty good tonight. It was a big two points.”
The coach was heaping praise on him this time around.
“He played extremely well tonight,” said Sutter. “I was proud of how he responded. He did a great job.”
Stajan had the lone goal in regulation for Calgary (20-20-5), which is seven points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Mikhail Grabovski replied for the Leafs (18-21-5).
The Leafs had an opportunity to pull out a big victory after Grabovski tied the game with 12.4 seconds remaining in the third period. Tyler Bozak hit the post on a short-handed breakaway in overtime.
“It’s a big point for our team,” said Phaneuf. “We’re not happy about not getting the two, but it showed a lot of character and showed a lot about our group the way we’ve been playing the last couple weeks. We’ve been in every hockey game and we’ve battled right to the end.”
Players from both teams were playing with heavy legs and the game lacked flow as a result. The Flames were on the end of back-to-back games while Toronto was returning home after a four-game swing that took them out West.
The pace picked up in the third period. With the score still tied 0-0, Calgary’s Alex Tanguay had Giguere beat but rang a shot off the crossbar while Kiprusoff stood tall as Leafs forwards Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb whacked away at a loose puck.
“We didn’t have our legs for most of the night and it was a real struggle,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
The game was a matchup of veteran goaltenders that are currently fighting for their place in the lineup. Giguere was making his first start since Dec. 16—a return that was delayed by James Reimer’s good play—while Kiprusoff was having his own problems with consistency.
There were no signs of rust from Giguere despite the long layoff. Rene Bourque had his chance from in close denied in the first period while Tim Jackman missed on a breakaway deke in the second period.
“I felt pretty good,” said Giguere. “It’s been a tough battle since Christmas trying to get myself back into the game. It was just nice to be able to play a game and to compete.”
Stajan could certainly identify. He sat out a pair of games last month as a healthy scratch and had racked up just one goal and two assists in 13 games since being inserted back into the lineup.
A return to Toronto brought out an edge to his game that had been missing.
“To say it’s just another win, I’d be lying,” said Stajan. “It’s a special win for me for sure.”
Notes:Marcel Mueller made his NHL debut, becoming the 11th player this season to play for the Maple Leafs and AHL Marlies … Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr missed his second straight game with an undisclosed lower-body injury. He remains two games behind Theo Fleury for third on the organization’s all-time games played list. … Toronto’s Mike Brown served the first game of a three-game suspension. … Flames defenceman Jay Bouwmeester played his 469th straight game—the longest current streak in the NHL. … Announced attendance was 19,462.