|Leafs head coach Ron Wilson during practice at the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence in Etobicoke Mar. 3, 2010. (Greg Henkenhaf/Toronto Sun)
OTTAWA — Most teams hate being reduced to the role of playoff spoilers come March and April, but coach Ron Wilson figures why not embrace it?
His patchwork 29th-place team threw a scare into the Boston Bruins on Thursday and had the Boston fans booing as the young Leafs came alive in the latter stages before losing a 3-2 shootout. On Saturday, the Leafs hope to add to the two-game losing streak of the Senators and beat their provincial rivals for the second time in a month.
“I’m a realist, I know the situation we’re in,” Wilson said Friday, talking of his team and its 19-32-12 record. “But we view every game we’re in as important, because we can have a hand in who makes the playoffs and what the final standings will be. So every night is like a playoff game that way.”
This group has likely become easier for Wilson to handle since a flurry of trades began in early February.
“There are no old cynical veterans here or guys worried that we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “Guys here want the experience and want to make themselves better and this is an opportunity to audition for next season.”
Wilson pointed to rookies such as centre Tyler Bozak, who has held on to the first-line job.
“He’s the least of my worries,” Wilson said. “Since he’s been up, he’s been one of my most consistent people. Some of the other guys have to learn from that.
“It’s all part of the process we’ve started here, being a younger team. I need to be patient and help these guys learn what it takes. Your expectations (as coach) of what happens on the ice have to change because some guys lack experience. Or they start to think too much about: ‘Can I play up here?’ They have to clear the decks after every shift, especially if they’ve had a bad one.”
Where the Leafs might hit a psychological wall is at home, where they play three in a row next week, 11 more in all. If they fall behind — and teams such as Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Buffalo are quite capable of making that happen — fans aren’t going to let them forget it has been five years out of the playoffs.
“We’ll hit rough patches and struggle to score, but if our effort is the way it was (Thursday night), we’ll improve rapidly,” Wilson said.