Colby Armstrong got back into the lineup Saturday night for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he turned out to add a lot more than anyone (maybe even his own teammates) would have expected.
As the Leafs struggled (to put it nicely) offensively and continued to pile up the loses in his absence, Ron Wilson decided to put Armstrong on the first line with Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg to add some punch and tenacity.
It was a questionable decision, as Armstrong is not the most offensively gifted player and is better suited for a second- or third-line grinding position. But right off the bat against the Boston Bruins on Saturday Armstrong not only made an impact, he set the tone for the entire game.
As the Leafs buzzed around the Bruins net just minutes into the game, and after goalie Tim Thomas smothered the puck, Armstrong roared onto the scene and thundered Zdeno Chara over his netminder and into the net.
Message sent: With Armstrong back, win or lose, you're going to have to fight for every inch when he's on the ice.
And it was a message that his teammates took to heart, as the Leafs muscled up and played their most physical game of the season, and maybe for the first time overpowered their opponent while throwing their weight around all over the ice.
Armstrong was a menace in every zone, constantly jawing with players, throwing hits along the boards and in open ice, and causing Bruins players to worry more about him and less about Kessel, who, as center, found himself with a lot more open space.
Instead of shadowing Kessel as he usually does, Chara found himself fighting for space in front of the net with Armstrong, who fearlessly stood there all night, something the team has desperately needed this season.
He was rewarded by Wilson and played more than 23 minutes in the game—more than every forward other than Versteeg, who played 25 minutes and scored the game-tying goal with just 42 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Leafs looked fresh, with plenty of jump in their step, and willing to go as far as they needed to to get the win. They fired 40 shots on Thomas, who was miraculous and the only reason the game went into extra time.
The Leafs eventually won the game in a shootout 3-2, with Kessel fittingly potting the winning goal against his former team.
It was a pleasant sign for Leaf fans, who just two nights earlier started the "fire Wilson" chant through the ACC. It looked like a whole new team, a team who used their speed and toughness to outlast the opponent and win a game they weren't expected to.
A total team effort, but one that was led by Armstrong, who threw himself around like a wrecking ball and drove the Bruins nuts all night.
The shootout win was a great one for the team's confidence, and though Armstrong's return does not solve the Leafs' offensive issues, it certainly injects some much-needed energy into a club that is searching for some chemistry up front.
Though Wilson has shuffled through line combinations like a deck of cards this season, rarely using the same ones for very long, he might want to stick with Armstrong up on the top line with Kessel in the middle.
Armstrong took all the focus off Kessel and Versteeg while making it an unpleasant visit to Toronto for many of the Bruins players. Though he didn't record a point or have any scoring chances, he did all the dirty work and brought a big-time intimidation factor that has been sorely missed.
It isn't the end of the team's troubles by a long shot, but for a team that is going to need to fight like they did on Saturday night to get wins this season, Armstrong's energy and toughness made a huge difference.
His return to the lineup had people expecting him to play a small role and add some physical energy.
By the time the night was over and the Leafs had left the ice with their sticks raised in salute to the cheering fans, it was clear that Armstrong had made a huge difference and pushed the team's play to a new level.
It would be wise for the rest of the team to follow his lead more often.
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