John Pohl Steps Up

Eleven nights ago, in Carolina, John Pohl was awarded his first NHL penalty shot and it did not go well.

Skated hard to the net, applied the brakes at the hash marks and tried to wrist a shot that tipped over the crossbar.

Last night, against Manny Fernandez of the Minnesota Wild, the Leaf quasi-rookie shifted gears and strategy as the crowd held its breath. Fernandez came out quite a distance to deny him shooting space, but backed in as Pohl neared, faked, and went to his backhand. This time, the puck found twine and the Leafs were considerably rejuvenated.

“In Carolina, I tried to trick the goalie by coming in fast and then slowing down, throw off his timing. Tonight, I just tried to go with the shot-fake. I don’t know if he really bit but he kind of went into the butterfly V and I still had enough aerial angle to get the puck over his pad.”

It was number five on the season for the 27-year-old who’s worked his way up from fourth-line spear carrier to second-line necessity, with power-play assignments. It’s an expanded role with increased ice time, largely determined by a crush of Leaf injuries. But with a depleted lineup, and the Leafs chronically goal challenged, all roles are up for grabs from the understudy cast.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant or whatever. But the game does slow down a little bit the more you’re out there,” said Pohl. “You’re in the flow, you’re used to the bumps, the speed, and you can sort of do things at your own pace a little more.”

It was heartening, on this evening, that the more youthful, peripheral Leafs were making plenty of noise, Pohl also drawing an assist on Mats Sundin’s goal, Alex Steen playing with restored vigour on the captain’s wing, and potting his fourth.

“This kind of is my role,” Pohl explained. “When we’re all healthy, I’m more of a role player. If guys go down, hopefully I can contribute by stepping in and playing other guys’ roles and not miss too much of a beat.”

Last year, in and around his mid-season call-up to the Leafs, Pohl was a scoring hottie with the Marlies, under Paul Maurice’s tutelage. There was familiarity with a coach, now behind Toronto’s bench, who had faith in the neophyte, long impressed by Pohl’s speed and playmaking smarts.

“A great move,” said Maurice of Pohl’s penalty shot manoeuvre. “I haven’t seen that one before.”

Pity the fans back in Minnesota-St. Paul didn’t get got to see their native son’s polished penalty shot success. Game wasn’t carried there. “But my family has Center Ice so they saw it and that’s all that matters.”

He’s an American kid, the flat Midwestern accent most noticeable when Pohl utters the word hockey, as in “hawkey.” In an earlier lifetime, he was kid nova at the University of Minnesota, sweetly joined at the hipbone to a hockey whiz girlfriend, Krissy Wendel, captain of the U.S. Olympic squad and now – fortuitously – suiting up for the Etobicoke Dolphins. An oddball couple, given the typical cookie-cutter babes favoured by most NHLers. But for the first time in six years together, this twosome is now sharing an in-season residence.

There are some lapses, however, in Pohl’s knowledge of the Canadian game, at least as it has unfolded here, in the centre of the hockey universe.

Didn’t know, for example, that the Number 21 on his back was once worn by the fabled Borje Salming. Didn’t know, in fact, who Borje Salming was until Sundin set him straight on the matter, when his fellow Swede’s jersey was symbolically raised to the rafters a couple of months ago. So much for historical context.

The Minnesota team the Leafs beat 4-3 last night has nothing but geography in common with its North Stars predecessor, a latter-day franchise without sentimental attachment for Pohl. Still, the penalty shot pop was a nice narrative twist.

“It’s kind of cool to say it was on the Wild. And I knew if I didn’t score, I’d probably never be put out in a shootout in my entire life.”


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