Wilson uses benching to send message

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:47 PM ET

TORONTO - Tyler Bozak — and a few other Maple Leafs — can get a clean slate with Ron Wilson by getting dirty in Philadelphia.

After four wins followed by two one-goal losses with little traffic and lots of blocked shots, Bozak paid the price on Thursday against the New York Rangers when he sat most of the third period.

But coach Wilson is ready to give others a seat if he doesn’t see improvement in driving the net on Saturday against the Flyers.

“Sometimes the guy you don’t play, it’s not his fault,” Wilson said after Friday’s practice, where he reinstated Bozak as first-line centre.

“It’s the other two on the line not doing a good job. That whole line (Bozak, Kris Versteeg and Phil Kessel) wasn’t skating very well. You go in with Plan A and they’re not giving you the opportunties, so you have to go to a dirtier plan, to the front, get your nose dirty, score an ugly goal. We have to figure out a way to do that.

“It was similar to the game they were playing in Pittsburgh, no scoring chances, a Roy Halladay kind of night with no runs, no hits, no errors.

“We need that line to compete a little bit harder on nights when it’s going to be difficult. They will be closely monitored by the other team.”

But Bozak’s plight underlines the Leafs’ lack of size up front. The first line is a far cry from what Wilson had with Jumbo Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks and behind Bozak at centre are the squat Mikhail Grabovski and the 188-pound Tim Brent.

Up to now, speed and puck movement had powered the Leafs’ engine. Now it’s bogging down a bit with the checking getting harder and the Leafs being scouted more heavily. But Versteeg doesn’t think the Flyers suddenly have the upper hand on Saturday.

“If you look down their middle, they have Danny Briere, Claude Giroux and Mike Richards and I don’t think any of those guys are over six feet,” Versteeg said. “We have small, quick centres who like to make plays, just like them. They do play gritty and so do we.”

Upset by the benching — and perhaps by getting no goals and just three assists through nearly six games, Bozak wouldn’t come out for post-game comments on Thursday.

But he was back in character Friday afternoon and vowing to be that net presence Wilson wants.

“Personally, I’ve been trying to go there on the power play,” the lean six-footer said.

“It’s never been something I’ve done; I’ve always been a kind of half-wall guy. It’s taken a little adjusting, but I’m the guy who should be in front and Phil is the guy who is shooting. We just have to try and get more traffic.

“Sometimes (benching) is a good way to get a message through. I don’t think a lot us played too well and (New York) kind of took it to us. I was the guy who learned the lesson.”

With the first prominent benching of the year predictably making news around town, Wilson tried to shield Bozak by saying the puck he took in the ear at Sunday’s practice has affected his hearing, made him less tha 100% and said the media shouldn’t be so harsh on a second-year player.

But he also concluded by saying: “You’re not wrapping your arm around him and saying: ‘Excuse me, would you mind going to your room for the rest of the night?’ The player understands. He knows he’s struggling.

“Like a goaltender sometimes, I’m not obligated to continually play him. Someone else (in Thursday’s case, lone Leafs scorer Colby Armstrong) might benefit from taking some of your ice time.”

Perhaps the stat that stood out the most on Thursday was the 30 shots blocked by the Rangers, making it more than 50 against the Leafs the past two games. Both were one-goal losses to teams that missed the playoffs last year.

“The defence has to get rid of the puck a little quicker,” Wilson said.

“They have to pass it to each other a beat faster and we adjust the metronome a little faster. It’s been tick ... tock and we have to make it tick-tock.”


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