Leafs' turnaround a product of confidence and a resolution to play better defence

GEORGE GROSS, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

The yo-yo, which was invented in the 18th century, is a toy consisting of two equally sized and weighted disks of plastic, wood, or metal, connected by an axle, with a string tied around it.

It became popular in the 1920s, enjoyed by adults and children alike, amused by a contraption that went up and down by pulling and lowering the string.

Little did its inventors know that the toy would become a universal metaphor for the ups and downs of human performance.

Enter the Maple Leafs. They have had more ups and downs than even the finest yo-yo user could hope to achieve. One night, the Leafs would get clobbered by the least impressive of NHL teams, only to triumph over more serious opponents in the following few games.

It was time to find out what is responsible for that form reversal at a time when making the playoffs seemed like an impossible dream for the team and the Leaf Nation.

"If I was to sum up what the reason is for the current performances of our team, I could do it in one word --confidence," said Paul Maurice, head coach of his sometimes confidence-challenged players.

"But there are a number of reasons. When Bryan (McCabe) and Carlo (Colaiacovo) went out, and Vesa (Toskala) got hurt, we began to suffer.

"This shouldn't surprise anyone. We lost two of our top four defencemen and we were on the road. Then, Toskala came back and started to play the way we knew he could. He made the difference because, when the defence makes a mistake and the goalie covers up, the whole team gains confidence. But when the defence makes a mistake and the goalie cannot stop it, that's when the problems begin. The loss of Carlo at that time really affected the team."

Maurice, who over his coaching years has learned to roll with the punches, figures that the team's current turnaround occurred after that disastrous three-game west coast trip in early January -- all losses -- when the players realized that they had to focus on defence if they wanted to succeed.

"The players now have a defensive mindset," Maurice said. "It's not perfect, yet, but with Vesa playing the way he can and with McCabe and Colaiacovo back in the lineup, the parts are beginning to fall into place."

What about the emergence of the much-maligned and chastised Pavel Kubina, I asked?

"The explanation is rather simple," Maurice said. "With Matt Stajan, Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake -- our strong second power-play line -- we needed right-handed defencemen. With Kubina getting more ice time, his confidence rose and it shows. Besides, he doesn't have a bad shot."

The head coach was extremely pleased with the performance of Stajan during the recent home-and-home series against the Philadelphia Flyers -- he called it "fantastic" -- more so after Mats Sundin went down with his groin injury. Maurice also was impressed with the way Alex Steen performed at centre on Sundin's line.

Maurice might be disappointed in the performances of some of his gladiators, but he won't talk about it. It just isn't the time.

I don't blame him, because the bags under his eyes would only grow bigger.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Olympian Paul Henderson, bitterly disappointed over the way provincial and federal bureaucrats are treating his efforts to stage the 2015 Pan American Games in southern Ontario, has resigned. "I just can't go on," said the upset former IOC member and World Sailing Federation president ... Congratulations to Ottawa's Abby Hoffman, who was presented with the IOC's Women in Sports Award for the Americas at the organization's recent world conference in Jordan. It was attended by 600 representatives from 125 countries ... CBC-TV Sports head Scott Moore has announced that Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean, Ian Hanomansing, Scott Russell and Diana Swain will be providing coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics ... Incidentally, CBC will start its daily coverage of the 2008 world figure skating championships from Gothenburg, Sweden on Tuesday, both on the main network and on Country Canada.


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