The year was 2002, and as the Toronto Maple Leafs entered the playoffs, their roster became thinner than Paris Hilton's dance repertoire.
Curtis Joseph played in only his second game since returning from a broken hand in Game One against the New York Islanders, and provided Leafs fans with a series that had them wondering if their goalie could be consistent enough coming off the injury to carry them.
Mats Sundin was lost to a broken wrist, figuratively leaving the team without a top line center for a majority of its playoff run, and left an enormous hole to fill on the top line.
Mikael Renberg began to experience discomfort late in the first round in his hips—an injury that proved to dog him for the rest of the playoffs (not the biggest loss in the world, but healthy bodies in the playoffs count for something right?).
Following a series with the New York Islanders, the Leafs started to become more battered and bruised, and the entire roster started to become a "game-time decision" (especially when Darcy Tucker was hit head-first into the boards by Daniel Alfredsson...but he got eliminated, so no hard feelings. Kind of).
You know it's bad when you start to worry that Jonas Hoglund is going to go down with a playoff-ending injury.
During the first game in their Conference Finals series with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs were missing nine players who took regular shifts with the club during the season and later in the series, they even lost their coach Pat Quinn to medical issues.
The Leafs eventually went on to lose the series, but there was one constant the entire time.
Gary Roberts was the savior.
In any playoff run akin to that of the 2002 Leafs, you can't really overlook anyone's contributions—Darcy Tucker threw the body without remorse, Bryan McCabe played like a defenseman, Alyn McCauley started to show some serious potential, and Tie Domi was scoring goals.
But through it all, the one constant, the one guy we could count on night in and night out was Gary Roberts.
Sidenote: This is seemingly one of the places that things started to go really wrong for the Leafs. Heading into the 2002/03 season, the team looked to be fairly strong—especially with the emergence of Tucker, Shayne Corson, and Alyn McCauley as regular contributors on this team.
Needless to say, Corson quit on the Leafs, and McCauley was dumped in the Owen Nolan trade and his career was never the same.
I'm not saying he would have panned out had he stayed in Toronto because no one knows—although he did look damn good—but the idea of having two young players able to contribute at that time (Brad Boyes was also in that deal) instead of Nolan (who really did nothing for this team) certainly seems like the better alternative.
I still can't believe I was excited about acquiring Owen Nolan.
Five seasons and one lockout later (and a mind-numbing stop in Florida), Roberts, the 19-year NHL veteran and Stanley Cup Champion (1989 with Calgary) is now being beckoned by the Pittsburgh Penguins to save their season against the Detroit Red Wings.
At the outset of the playoffs, I didn't believe that this could be the same Gary Roberts that I remembered. Yes, the man keeps himself in impeccable shape, but he's also 42, and I didn't know how many 42-year-olds who can keep up at the pace of the new NHL (the lockout did a fairly good job of weeding them out).
Needless to say, I learned well before the Pittsburgh Penguins not to count out Gary Roberts. He looked just as feisty as he always was, and still seems to be one of those players whose presence alone can lift a locker room to new heights-but he then proceeded to strain his groin and contract pneumonia. When he was in the lineup, he was still effective.
Now, after sitting him for Game 1, Penguins' Coach Michel Therrien says he's back in, and the other Penguins couldn't be happier.
Although it's been said that Roberts' scratch on Saturday wasn't due to his health, but more as a reward to the players that got them there, the point has become moot.
The Penguins are behind in this series, and they need to pick up the pace (Whether your argument is "Chris Osgood was just really ON Saturday night" or not).
The Penguins are going to look to Roberts for a spark. Not necessarily to him to be the key to winning the game (as he was so many times in 2002 and previously in his career), but the key to kick-starting this Penguins team, and to help them deal with the limelight and the pressure that comes from the Stanley Cup finals.
The hope is that Roberts can do that for this young team facing the expectations—now and in the future—of being a juggernaut.
If the Pens have any hope of standing up to the Detroit Red Wings physically, then they need Roberts to be at his 42-year old, weight-lifting, protein shake-mixin' best. They need him to be able to bring that edge and that grit to the game andthey need him to inspire their other players to play in the same way.
But more importantly—the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins need a win.
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