Why the Leafs want it

Dion Phaneuf, as much as any Maple Leaf this season, wants to prove his detractors wrong. He and...

Dion Phaneuf, as much as any Maple Leaf this season, wants to prove his detractors wrong. He and the rest of the undefeated Leafs are playing like they have chips on their shoulders. (CRAIG ROBERTSON, Toronto Sun)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:17 PM ET

NEW YORK — It was an off-Broadway rehearsal day for the Maple Leafs, a loose and lively workout that you would expect from a surprising undefeated team.

The location was Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s West Side, as unique a practice venue that a team will visit during the course of an NHL season.

In full gear, minus skates, Leafs players drew stares from figure skaters and shinny players as they walked into the raised rink, which has the unlikely feature of jutting out into the Hudson River.

It wasn’t the first “who are these guys” moment of the young season.

What followed was a spirited 45-minute workout on the small rink, with plenty of hooting and banging of glass from a buoyant group that just over 12 hours earlier had knocked off the Penguins in Pititsburgh.

The Leafs go back to Broadway on Friday night at Madison Square Garden and, with a win over the New York Rangers, would move to 4-0, their best start since the 1993-94 season.

Given most on the current roster are in their 20s, few Leafs would remember that squad, which opened on a 10-game winning streak and, at the other end of the season, lost in the conference final.

A three-game win streak to start the current season doesn’t mean all is right in the centre of the hockey universe, of course. But at least it appears to be headed in the right direction. And if it keeps up, a loyal fan base aching for success will be ready to burst.

“The attitude is different,” Leafs senior vice president of hockey operations, Dave Nonis said Thursday. “A lot of that comes from the players themselves. Part of it is they have something to prove. Part of that is personalities. And winning doesn’t hurt.”

The Leafs are hardly without flaws. Both the opener against Montreal and Wednesday’s 4-3 road win in Pittsburgh could have gone either way, particularly the latter contest during which they managed just 14 shots on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

So, what is creating this sudden rush to respectability? Besides the obvious — reliable goaltending and contributions from all four lines — the roster is deep with players who have something to prove.

There is captain Dion Phaneuf, with a fresh start and an opportunity to renew the promise he showed in his first two years with the Calgary Flames.

There is J-S Giguere, who is determined to re-establish himself as a No. 1 goaltender and did a fine job of it in the team’s first two wins.

Clarke MaCarthur, he of four goals in his first three games, would like to show the Atlanta Thrashers they were misguided in rejecting the arbitration settlement reached in the summer.

Then there is defenceman Luke Schenn, promising as a rookie then slumping as a sophomore, is a kid no more and determined to play like it.

Phil Kessel, a 30-goal scorer three times in his career is ready to move to the next level. Forty or more, anyone?

And on it goes, through a Leafs lineup that is building in confidence and chemistry.

“There is probably a lot to prove for a lot of the guys,” Nonis said. “The players that were here last year obviously weren’t happy with their performance, by and large. Overall, when you finish 29th, you couldn’t have had a lot of great years.

“The there are other players who have joined us who were either free-agent signings or coming off years that they want to improve on and they have had a big part of our early success.”

Following Wednesday’s nail-biting win, Leafs coach Ron Wilson was asked if, given the Penguins’ late surge in that contest, it was the type of game the team would have squandered a year ago.

The answer may be obvious, but Wilson rightfully dismissed it as irrelevant. With so few faces remaining from the team that started the season 0-7-1 a year ago, Wilson made it clear he no longer will compare rotten apples to oranges.

For the first time in his three seasons in Toronto, he feels he has a team that is both coachable and rich with players willing to accept their role — be it first-line producer, third-line checker or fourth-line mucker.

“You want your team to have this kind of mood,” Wilson said of he team’s enthusiasm. “They work harder in practice and feel good about themselves. It’s a good group. They’re young, they’re enthusiastic and they are better to work with.”

The team has plenty of room for improvement, of course. Sloppiness in its own end has been a concern at times, as has turnovers. But at the same time, players such as MacArthur, Kessel, Phaneuf, Giguere and Kris Versteeg have shown they are committed to playing as good or better than they have at any point in their career.

“That’s my job as coach, to try and coax the best years out of everyone,” Wilson said. “We’re a work in progress, but if they can do that, we’ll be in pretty good shape as a team.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/@longleysunsport


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