|The Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel watches as Vesa Toskala makes a save on teammate Matt Stajan. (Margaret Sheridan/SLAM! SPORTS)
With general manager Brian Burke’s holiday trade freeze looming, the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the ice for an outdoor skate Tuesday to open the refurbished Ramsden Park community rink.
With cheering students from nearby schools and the public looking on, head coach Ron Wilson put the Leafs through their paces on the outdoor ice surface. The cheerful atmosphere meant the fans who lined the boards in the chilly weather weren’t the only ones laughing and joking around.
And a lighthearted moment might be just what the team needed.
“It’s awesome for kids to be able to come out here, because this is where I began skating – out on the pond,” Leafs winger Phil Kessel said. “And we had the most fun being outside.”
After a disheartening 7-2 trouncing at the hands of the Bruins Saturday during Kessel’s highly-touted return to Boston, the Leafs’ offence sparkled in Atlanta Monday, exploding for five goals in the second period of a 5-2 win.
With two more games against his former team this month, Kessel might have been happy to have a break from the ordinary.
“I (skated outside) all the time when I was younger,” Kessel told reporters following the practice session. “It was neat, I haven’t done it in a long time, so it was nice getting back out there.”
But it didn’t take long for reality to intrude on the bubbly atmosphere.
Inevitably, Kessel was asked about the Leafs’ poor performance in Boston, as the burst of offence from linemate Alexei Ponikarovsky, who against Atlanta had two goals to increase his season total to 11 and the makeup of his line, which includes Matt Stajan.
“In Boston we struggled a bit,” Kessel admitted. “But we still try to do whatever we can to win. Poni’s a big boy, he works hard out there and Stajan sees the ice pretty well. I feel more comfortable, we’ve got chemistry going. We’re reading off of each other.”
Ponikarovsky, a veteran of the outdoor skates that have become tradition with the Leafs, appreciated the time away from the Centre of Excellence, but deflected most questions surrounding his recent goal output.
“It’s nice to get outside,” Ponikarovsky explained. "Basically we’re doing what’s working for us. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing with, you just have to do the same thing. I’m just doing my job and trying to get as much in.”
Vesa Toskala, who earned only his second win of the season Monday due to a spate of injuries and poor play, has been a preferred target for Leafs boo-birds this season. But be it the cold weather or the general atmosphere at the skate, there was very little ill will shown by the fans who gathered for the practice.
“Vesa had a great game (Monday) night,” goalie Joey MacDonald said. “When you’ve got two or three goalies battling, it’s great for the team, especially if they’re winning. Things are going pretty well here. We had that little bump in Boston, but things like that do happen. But as long as you’re working hard it’s going to work out.
“It’s all about confidence and leadership.”
Ponikarovsky, a nine-year Leafs veteran who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, didn’t want to dwell on his contract status with the club. Not with Burke’s self-imposed holiday trade freeze nearing.
“If you think about that it’s going to take your mind off the game,” Ponikarovsky said. “The only thing I can control is how I play, everything else will take care of itself.”