Following an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice was asked whether his players had improved their team toughness since the beginning of the season.
But rather than speak to the fighting nature of his team that evening, Maurice measured another physical element.
"I think we are growing into our size a little bit," said Maurice, who gave the Leafs yesterday off from practice. "I know it has been noticed that (captain Mats Sundin) is playing more of a snarly game, but that line (of Sundin, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky) has realized that its true strength may not be puck skills, but the fact they can hold people off to the outside because of their size."
With the precarious nature of their spot in the standings, size will have several important implications for the Leafs in their remaining 26 games. Toronto didn't go near the ice yesterday but still lost some ground in the Eastern Conference standings when the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the New Jersey Devils. That victory gave Tampa 64 points, and allowed it to move past the idle Carolina Hurricanes, who have 63 points and fell to eighth place in the conference. The Leafs, a point out of eighth when the day started, now are two back of the Hurricanes.
The Leafs play host to the New York Islanders tomorrow night in another four-point match. The Isles are in 10th place in the conference with 60 points, one less than the Leafs. Toronto then travels to Philadelphia to take on the sad-sack Flyers on Thursday before the Edmonton Oilers visit on Saturday night, when the Leafs plan to honour the 1967 Stanley Cup-champion squad.
"We have another huge game coming up (tomorrow)," Sundin said. "We'll have to get back playing the way we've been playing on the road here."
The Leafs are at a point where they probably would not mind playing the rest of their games away from the Air Canada Centre. Before yesterday's games, the Leafs led the National Hockey League in goals scored on the road with 96. In other rinks, the Leafs had fashioned a nice 16-10-3 record. But they continue to suffer on home ice, going 11-12-4. Only the Flyers have fewer wins in their own building than the 11 the Leafs, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have won at home.
So, while Sundin acknowledges that tomorrow's game is big, the Leafs big players have no choice but to continue to be effective.
Though it took the scoring of the Sundin trio on Saturday night to get the other lines rolling, it was encouraging that the threesome of Boyd Devereaux, Chad Kilger and Bates Battaglia was a force. Their ability to work deep in the offensive zone is further proof that it is easier for big men to gain open ice in the NHL that came out of the lockout.
"We have six good-sized men in the top nine (forwards) right now," Maurice said. "The past two or three weeks we have been able to use our size down low and create some things without taking a lot of penalties. We have some size and we are trying to use it intelligently so we are not in the box."