|Francois Beauchemin, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski celebrate Clarke MacArthur goal against the Ottawa Senators. (Dave Abel/QMI AGENCY)
TORONTO - There aren’t many pictures worth saving from the first 166 games of the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson era, but Saturday night’s third period at the Air Canada Centre was suitable for framing.
The scoreboard read 4-0 for the Maple Leafs over Ottawa, with players and coaches grouped around the bench in animated discussion. Everyone joshed with centre Tim Brent, into the fifth minute of waiting for the NHL’s Toronto war room to confirm he’d scored his second goal in two games to clinch a second win.
There was even a big Snickers rinkboard ad unfurled beneath them that period, a happy coincidence.
“We were just goofing around on the bench, saying that if I got the goal, I’d be on pace for 82 again,” Brent said. “I said: ‘I don’t know if I want it, because people will start to expect that (goal a night).’ I just might bronze that stick.”
Of course, the yucks aren’t going to last, but what a difference from last year when their fifth straight non-playoff year ended with two ACC losses in which they managed one goal. The only boos heard Saturday were for the long delay reviewing Brent’s goal. For Leafs young and old, the change in weather was quite a shock to the system.
“Both games (wins over Montreal and Ottawa) have had great atmosphere,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “We have a lot of new faces in here, a lot of young guys who’ve been given the opportunity to be in the NHL and play in Toronto. We’re all pretty lucky and trying to make the most of that and develop a bit of a winning atmosphere.”
If it’s for real, Burke and Wilson certainly took the long way to get here. But there is some steam behind the train this time, with efforts to improve the product and the attitude, going back to trades in January.
“The enthusiasm’s a lot better,” said Wilson, who heard significant booing when he was introduced on opening night. “We have better balance to our team, At the beginning of last year, we didn’t have Phil Kessel playing and he adds a totally different dimension, as does Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArhur.
“These are guys who’ve played four, five or six years in the league and have been very successful. They still have a lot of upside, We didn’t get them at the best point of their careers, they’re only going to continue to get better. They’re better players, period.”
For a veteran such as defenceman Tomas Kaberle, prolonging this run would erase any doubts he had about coming back for a 13th season. Since the lockout year, he has been telling kids on the team about the good times of 1999 and ’02 when the Leafs went to the conference final and maybe now a little bit of that excitement around town could actually come back.
“We know it’s just two games and that we have some tough games coming up on the road this week (Pittsburgh and New York Rangers) ,” Kaberle said. “But we have good boys in here. They’re having fun and they have good legs. That’s what we need to do.
“When the fans are interested, we feed off of them. When they’re cheering, it’s like the sixth player out there on the ice. We felt that way much of the 60 minutes (on Saturday).
“Their goal was a tough break, a bad bounce off the boards, but we never stopped afterward. Just because it was 5-0, we don’t want to give Ottawa anything. The boys had some great fights and I think the fans loved it.”
The tenets Burke and Wilson wanted in place are taking hold, mostly because Jean-Sebstien Giguere has given up just three goals in two wins and all three lines are scoring.
“You’re allowed to go out and make the odd mistake knowing (Giguere’s) going to bail you out,” said Schenn, who is playing with a lot more confidence following a sophomore jinx year. “It’s a huge difference, not being down 1-0. It’s awesome that we can rely on both goalies (Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson).”
The Leafs have also worked for their success up front, with attention to detail when clearing the zone and determined forechecking. The first goal Saturday was the result of MacArthur’s hustle to steal a puck from Jason Spezza, while Brent spooked goalie Pascal Leclaire into a giveaway.
“Maybe it was a bit of a home side bounce,” Schenn said of Brent’s goal. “But we’ll take it for sure. When you’re playing well together, you’re allowed to have fun.”
For now, the Leafs can enjoy their Kodak moment.