Has Christmas come early for Ron Wilson?
The Maple Leafs’ mentor could be on the verge of that elusive coaching triple, a first line that scores, a team that checks and perhaps even a goaltending controversy.
He’ll know for sure after three games in four nights, beginning here this evening against the New York Islanders, on to Boston Thursday for a rematch of Saturday’s blowout loss and then entertaining Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.
Wilson’s improved fortunes couldn’t change his Scrooge-like behaviour after Tuesday’s outdoor practice at Ramsden Park where he gave interview requests the old ‘bah humbug’.
But the players are hoping it’ll be a Miracle on Bay St., as they’d come back from an 0-7-1 start to within five points of the playoff pack before Tuesday night.
“It’s showing up on the scoreboard and in the win column,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said, a day after the 5-2 throttling of Atlanta. “Our goalies were great, our forwards are paying the price in front. They’re driving to the net, getting dirty and being rewarded for it. Not only are they scoring, they’re applying backside pressure.
“It’s a good sign that even though we didn’t play well against Boston, we bounced back at home (Monday) with a solid effort.”
Though quality practice time has been hard to get the past while, the Leafs are starting to get the hang of puck pursuit, be it rebounds or forwards covering for the defence, such as centres Wayne Primeau and Matt Stajan.
“Basically we’re doing what’s working for us,” said winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who scored twice against Atlanta on the top line with Stajan and Phil Kessel. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter who you are playing with, you just have to do the same things.”
Until getting shelled early in the Boston game, Joey MacDonald had thrust himself into the goaltending picture, in the absence of recovering rookie Jonas Gustavsson and the hot n’ cold Vesa Toskala. Against the Thrashers and in front of fickle home fans, Toskala was on his best behaviour and earned the start Wednesday.
But with Boston coming up 24 hours later, Toskala’s recent history of groin issues and MacDonald’s struggles there on Saturday, the starter against the Bruins could be a tough choice.
“Whenver you go in there and lose as badly as we did, you want to go back and be hungry,” MacDonald said. “(Boston) played well, but they didn’t play great, they had some bounces off skates and shin pads and sticks. You take those away and we just have to play like we did (Monday) night. The first 40 minutes (against Atlanta) we dominated, we created.
"We just have to bring that into the next game,”
In the summer, MacDonald had hoped his NHL experience with the Isles would give him a leg up on Gustavsson, but the rookie earned his own spot. Now it will be tougher on MacDonald to avoid demotion to the Marlies.
“You just have to take it day by day,” the Nova Scotian said. “This time up, things are going pretty well. I’ve established myself and played a couple of (strong) games. It was great for Vesa (Monday) night and having two or three goalies going well is great for the team. We’re winning, that’s the main thing.”
After Monday’s game, Wilson acknowledged how the improvement in net had made the rest of his job easier.
“It frees up your offence,” he said. “If you’re not quite sure the goalie is on his game, then you hesitate to go on attack. You have no offence and you’re just worried about defending.
“If you look at the way Jonas has played, how well Joey played in Jonas’s place and that Vesa’s had some pretty good games in the past month and to see him play that focused, it’s huge.”