Leafs lacking 'testosterone and truculence'?

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Ron Wilson wants his players to be prepared to go to difficult places — and he isn’t talking about any of the Maple Leafs’ less glamorous road destinations.

After one of the meeker efforts of the season in a 5-2 loss on Tuesday to the Minnesota Wild, the coach was miffed that his team has suddenly gone lacking in the one area they were supposedly going to improve.

It didn’t help that defenceman Mike Komisarek lasted all of six first-period shifts before leaving with a leg injury, originally sustained Saturday against Detroit.

But where was the promised testosterone and truculence, Brian Burke buzzwords billed to carry the load when other areas go lacking?

Have the Leafs gone soft all of a sudden?

“Any time you make it hard for the other team and make them not want to play you and be apprehensive every time they go into the corner, that’s the mentality you want to have,” Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby said yesterday. “You want to (have teams) come to Toronto and hate playing here.

“We want that reputation spreading around the league.”

If any future opponent takes a good look at the game tape from Tuesday night, that reputation will be somewhat less daunting. The Leafs lost countless battles for the puck and were far from the physical team that was promised and had delivered in the first handful of games this season.

The lack of physically helped create a dreadful atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre where fans were lulled into a comatose state by the pacificist effort.

The players no doubt would prefer a much livelier house, but isn’t it the chicken and the egg scenario? Might a couple of rousing hits and battles for the puck wake up the disinterested patrons?

“We have to compete harder, be willing to go into the dangerous areas and battle when we are there,” Wilson said following a practice to stress those efforts yesterday at the Mastercard Center. “If you don’t get physical, you don’t win those battles. I mean it’s pointless to even show up on the ice.”

The worst of it was that with a more spirited effort, the Leafs actually had a chance to build on the momentum of a couple solid weeks rather than destroy it. So when they showed up for practice yesterday, the players got the message: A series of hard-driving drills stressed one-on-one battles in front of the net and in the corners.

“A lot of our D zone problems at times is a lack of competitiveness,” defenceman Jeff Finger said. “That’s what those drills are made for.”

Finding the right mix of physical play has been a delicate one for these Leafs. In the early going, a handful of bad penalties were the bane in a rash of losses. Also in those games, players weren’t shy about marking their territory with a regular mix of fights.

Not that a team can’t play tough without the occasional brawl, but the Leafs haven’t had a true scrap in their past seven games, unless you count the minor tussle Nik Hagman engaged in against Tampa Bay a week ago.

With Komisarek questionable at best to return for tomorrow’s game in Chicago, Exelby likely will get the call as his replacement. While he has struggled at times — hence a number of healthy scratches — Exelby, an off-season acquisition in the Pavel Kubina trade with Atlanta, certainly isn’t shy about visiting those tough places.

But Wilson wants more than the occasional big hit or fight. And most pressing, he has made it clear there is no room for complacency, especially when it sprouts from something so modest as a two-game win streak.

“We have to be willing to go into the dangerous areas and battle when we are there,” Wilson said. “We’re not good enough to sit back and give a 75% effort.”


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