If their pride was scorched Wednesday night by a 6-2 loss in Philadelphia, then the Maple Leafs' ears were burning today when Ron Wilson got through with them.
When the Leafs assembled at high noon at the MasterCard Centre, Wilson gave them one his loudest and longest public broadsides since he started coaching here last season. He didn’t spare their feelings by doing it in the dressing room or a secluded corner of the rink, delivering it on purpose within easy earshot of the media.
He called out Phil Kessel for his lack of offence and then zeroed in on the meek response the Leafs gave after falling behind 4-0 to the Flyers and letting Philly enforcer Daniel Carcillo rub their noses in it. Kessel, who has just one goal the past 10 games, declined to talk to reporters afterwards.
“Ooh, he gets singled out in professional sports,” a caustic Wilson said of the stir his speech created. “He hasn’t played well the past 10 games. I could single out a lot of players, but he’s our best player and a lot of times that needs to be the message.
“We (criticize) it here (in public) because I’m ticked off. You do need a kick in the rump sometimes and then we’ll see how people respond.”
Wilson also ripped the team for its penchant for allowing early goals, lack of special teams’ success and their general compete level, after the Leafs teased everyone the night before with a come-from-behind win over Florida.
“Don’t get going when the score is 5-1 or 6-1,” Wilson chided. “Hey, you’ll lose puck battles, but what do you do? Get it back, don’t slough it off on someone else. Battling for the puck isn’t physical play, it’s wanting the puck. They strip it from you, turn around and strip it back. More of them have to be (accountable).”
Based on the lines at practice, Wilson plans to keep Kessel demoted on a line with the scoreless Rickard Wallin and rookie Viktor Stalberg.
“There’s a little too much (fan and media) pressure there,” Jason Blake said in defence of Kessel. “It’s easy to say he has to get back to basics, but when you’re a natural scorer like he is, he just can’t change his game.”
The Leafs are in dire need of a mental makeover, approaching a back-to-back situation against Buffalo and Ryan Miller tomorrow and then Pittsburgh at home on Saturday, that has proven to be poison to their playoff hopes. In the past five seasons, 64 back to backs have seen the Leafs reap the maximum four points just eight times. That’s 56 other occasions where they split or were swept.
“If we’re going to play like that, it’s going to be a rough (final) 30-odd games,” said Stalberg. “We have to play with a little bit more desperation, not look for fights or go for the big hits, but everyone competing for the puck.”