Leafs aim to pre-empt horror show

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

TORONTO -— To the list of expensive film flops such as Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, you can include the badly directed and poorly acted first three weeks of the Maple Leafs season.

But that is why the NHL gods make it a six-month schedule, toss in a week-long break for mondo practices and video sessions, allow six coaches to be on the ice and provide five games out of town to punch up the show. When the Leafs next poke their heads out the tunnel at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 3 to take the crowd’s temperature, they presumably will have re-invented themselves.

They really have no choice, at least if they’re still counting on an appearance in the playoff race. Though often criticized as being too easy a formula where more than half the 30 teams qualify, the Leafs have not found the right door going on five years and know the system is very unforgiving to teams with one point in their first seven games.

As much as the Leafs were reluctant to be held to a target for wins on this trip, let’s use 3-2 as the minimum. Anything less might not even bail them out of last place overall.

“We want to go 5-0, but we have to look at it realistically,” centre John Mitchell said Thursday. “One game at a time. We haven’t set a goal as a team, but that’s something we’ll talk about. Right now, we have to focus on Saturday (in Vancouver).”

But lose Saturday in regulation and the Leafs will have 148 maximum points available the rest of the season, needing more than 90 of those for a playoff spot. True, general manager Brian Burke did not guarantee this team would get a berth, but neither did he expect to be warding off calls for his coach’s head or fret about losing two lottery picks.

The other day, Burke went big picture and said the Leafs conceivably could go 14-7 in the next 21, provided injured players such as Jonas Gustavsson and Phil Kessel get back. Unfortunately, the Leafs haven’t played .667 hockey since before the lockout.

But give Burke and coach Ron Wilson credit for trying to keep the team from getting despondent with just one game to work with since Oct. 13 and a fan/media backlash every day. They gave the players a day of dodgeball practice, tossed a Halloween dinner to loosen things up for players and sweethearts and moved practice to a shortened rink to emphasize badly lacking physical play.

Twice this week, including Thursday, Wilson didn’t engage the media after practice, leaving the onus of explanation and accountability on his players.

If there is to be improvement, it must come in and around their net, with Gustavsson scheduled back next week and the high-priced defence overdue to bring stability instead of add to the confusion. Instead of augmenting the play of Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn, free agents Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin have somehow made the whole group less effective.

“Obviously, the results are not there, but there’s no use in pointing fingers,” Komisarek said. “We all have to be better if we want success.”

Welcome to the Maple Leafs, Take 2.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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