TORONTO – Colby Armstrong kept his head down and tried to bite his lip. But there was little the Toronto Maple Leafs forward could do to conceal the fact he was still smarting two days after being made a healthy scratch.
“Obviously, I was upset about it,” Armstrong said Monday.
The mood wasn’t much better among those who suited up for Saturday’s game—a 5-0 loss to Montreal on the night former captain Mats Sundin was honoured—which put an exclamation point on a week that raised a number of questions about the team.
Arguably the most important of those surrounds the leadership group. Armstrong was joined in the press box by defenceman Mike Komisarek, a fellow veteran player who was once a celebrated free-agent signing by the team. Those two also started the season as Dion Phaneuf’s alternate captains, making it even more unusual that they would find themselves scratched on the same night.
While acknowledging it wasn’t an easy decision, Ron Wilson made it clear that no player can count on a guaranteed spot.
“Our guys understand it’s a meritocracy,” said the Leafs coach. “Whoever’s playing best is going to be in the lineup.”
Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski each wore an ‘A’ in the absence of Armstrong and Komisarek against the Habs. It’s likely to be a one-off occurrence, especially since defenceman Carl Gunnarsson left Monday’s practice after crashing into the boards.
His availability for Tuesday’s game in Calgary was to be determined after the team made its way to Alberta.
“Hopefully, it’s not too serious,” said Wilson.
Komisarek would be called on as his replacement. Both he and Armstrong have dealt with significant injuries this season—playing just 41 games between them—which has opened the door for other players to carve out a more defined role in the lineup.
The Leafs are among the youngest teams in the NHL, something that is evident on nights things go well because of their blinding speed. It also appeared to play some role in Saturday’s loss, where the Leafs came unglued during the second period after James Reimer let in a shaky goal that put the Habs up 1-0.
It ended up being Toronto’s third straight defeat during a much more successful week for the franchise off the ice. Not only did the Leafs raise Sundin’s No. 13 banner to the rafters, they were also chosen to play in the NHL’s 2013 Winter Classic outdoor game.
Despite the recent skid, Toronto remained eighth in the Eastern Conference as it boarded a plane Monday afternoon to set off for three games in Western Canada.
“Nothing’s going to be easy, we know that,” said forward Joffrey Lupul. “For the most part we’ve found a way to get the job done this year and we’re going to have to continue to.”
Wilson is dealing with a pair of struggling forwards in Tim Connolly and Nikolai Kulemin and shook up his lines for practice Monday in a bid to get them going. But scoring hasn’t been a major issue for the team this season.
The Leafs have had far more trouble consistently keeping the puck out of their own goal. On Saturday night, Wilson pulled Reimer after two periods and seemed likely to give Jonas Gustavsson the start in Calgary—although the coach didn’t officially tip his hand.
The Swede is 7-4-1 since the start of January and was hoping to get the call against the Flames.
“I always put a lot of pressure on myself no matter if we’ve won 10 games in a row or if we’ve lost 10 in a row,” said Gustavsson. “I always try to approach it the same way, try to do everything I can to be mentally and physically ready when the puck drops.”
Armstrong is trying to employ a similar approach.
While the coach believes he’s been seriously hampered by an ankle injury and concussion this season—”He’s missed a ton (of time) so he’s behind in all aspects of his game,” said Wilson—the 29-year-old claims to be healthy.
It remains up in the air when he’ll be called on to play again.
“I wasn’t too happy about (being scratched), but it’s the coach’s decision,” said Armstrong. “I just tried to work hard in practice and I’ll be ready when they need me.”