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Army Of One

It can be safely said that Saturday night’s tilt between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs will go down as one of the best hockey games of the year.  It had a little bit of everything; bone crunching hits, jaw jarring fights, ridiculous saves, last minute heroics, and a shootout victory that included a killer backhand, and a former Bruin getting at least some measure of revenge.

With all that action in mind, it is somewhat ironic that the player who stood out the most in my mind was someone who didn’t even get his name on the scoresheet.

Colby Armstrong returned from injury and joined the Leafs top line, paying immediate dividends in the Leafs 3-2 shootout victory at home on Hockey Night In Canada this past Saturday.  Armstrong had missed time with an injured hand.

And while some people thought pinning the losing streak on the loss of Armstrong and Phaneuf was just a crutch to stand on-and maybe it was-there is no disputing how important a player like Armstrong is to his teammates, and this franchise.

Nicknamed Army, in part a play on his last name, in part a play on the aggressive unselfish style he employs on the ice, the gritty winger was signed by the Leafs this past summer to a three year pact.  And while he isn’t desolate when it comes to getting himself in the goals and assists columns, Armstrong brings things to this hockey team that cannot be measured in stats alone.

Saturday night was a prime example.

Returning to a team that was in a state of flux, having lost tough games to Tampa Bay and Edmonton, Armstrong provided a spark for the team, and set the tone in what was one of the more physical encounters of the year for the Leafs.  He was strong on the puck in the offensive zone, responsible in the defensive zone, and did his best to channel his inner Gary Roberts in front of the net, trying to wreak havoc for Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who played out of his mind in the loss making two save of the year candidates in the process.

Perhaps the sticking image from Saturday night’s win will be the moment Armstrong took a page out of yesteryear, mixing it up without a bucket.  Somewhere along the way he had his helmet lodged from his head, but continued to skate on in the play for a considerable time.  He wasn’t just on the ice either, he was engaged.  He mucked it up along the corners, went hard at the opposition, and continued to make sacrifices for the better good of the team.  He paid for it at the end of the shift when he was rammed, unprotected head first, into the glass, a hit that sent him down to the ice.

He didn’t miss a shift.

He also got back to being his usual play on the edge self, constantly antagonizing Bruins defenseman and captain Zdeno Chara, seemingly rattling the big giant.

Despite the injury, Armstrong has come as advertised when Leafs GM Brian Burke made the play to bring him to Toronto.  He is a hard worker, decent hands, and a strong physical presence.  And that’s just on the ice.

Off the ice he continues to be one of the straws that stirs the drinks for the hockey club.  Much like he did in Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta, Army stands as one of the locker room leaders, someone who knows how to set examples and lead the way, but at the same time does the job of bringing the group together, and keeping them loose when the time is right.

Whether the losing streak that endured following his injury can be directly related to Armstrong or not, there is no denying his importance to the team.

Aulie Does Is Play Solid Hockey

When the Toronto Maple Leafs announced on January 31st that they had traded for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie it was Phaneuf, the more heralded player, who grabbed most of the headlines.  However, the other components in the deal are shaping up to be just as integral to the rebuilding process as Phaneuf.

Sjostrom is a quality bottom six player, strong on the forecheck, and a smart two-way player.

Much like Sjostrom, Aulie is quietly and efficiently putting together an effective campaign during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  A towering defenseman, Aulie is doing everything he can to try and stay at the NHL level, and has been impressive in doing it.  Always looking calm and confident with the puck, he is a physical defender who thrives on shutting down the opposition.  On Saturday night Aulie played a career high 21:07, and is proving to be a reliable player that the coaching staff can rely on.

Who knows, we may someday see a reunion of Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie rekindling their shutdown days with team Canada’s World Junior team.

And if he keeps it up, he may just force the Maple Leafs hand in keeping him on this team, even when Phaneuf returns from injury.

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