|The Toronto Maple Leafs don't need any reminders of how badly they've been playing of late. (Mark O'Neill/QMI AGENCY)
TORONTO - Give the current class of young Maple Leafs this as they tackle their first serious losing streak: There is no sense of panic, nor is there the indifference that defined previous incarnations of the team.
They play hard, don’t dwell on losses, no matter how frustrating and forcefully distance themselves from those sad-sack teams of the past couple of seasons.
Depending on your pain threshold, at least there are some things to like about this team after its first dozen games, with solid goaltending and better defensive play the most notable.
For those reasons, plus the fact they started the season on a four-game win streak, it’s goofy to suggest that a game in early November is a must-win.
You can say, however, that the point they salvaged Wednesday in Washington was an XL, both for the way it was accomplished and the fact it may help avoid a result that would lump them in with some miserable company.
Not to go all doom and gloom, but if the Leafs lose their next two — at home against struggling Buffalo on Saturday and on Tuesday in Tampa Bay against the explosive Lightning — they will push their losing streak to six and equal the worst 10-game stretch in terms of points since Ron Wilson took over as coach in 2008.
No need for a reminder, but there have been more than a couple of rotten stretches during those two-plus seasons.
In their most recent eight games, the Leafs have lost seven, including one in overtime and another in a shootout, to give them four points. Compromised by injuries and a dormant offence, the team is in a drought not far off the infamous one to begin last season.
After losing their first eight a year ago, the Leafs had a win and an overtime loss to get them to four points following the opening 10 games.
That meagre output matched an equally forgettable three-week stretch beginning on Dec. 23, 2008 when an 8-2 loss to the Dallas Stars dropped their record to 14-14-6 and began run of mediocrity that has marked their fortunes since. A sign of things to come, then-goaltender Vesa Toskala was pulled after surrendering his seventh goal on 27 shots that night against Dallas. As would be typical of that group, the Leafs responded with an uninspired effort and a 4-1 loss to the Islanders. Eight games later, they managed just four points from that 10-game grouping.
“It’s just the team we are, period,” Wilson said then, a refrain too often heard over the following 14 months. “We’re not a good team.”
Until general manager Brian Burke completed his thorough house-cleaning early in 2010, they wouldn’t get better. The terrible start to the ’09-10 season gets the most talk, but another holiday-season spell was particularly gruesome.
The Leafs followed a loss in Edmonton on Dec. 30 with one in Calgary, during which both Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski were injured. When the Leafs finally beat Nashville on Jan. 15, they salvaged six points from that 10-game stint.
With a season long lost, the Leafs had one more run of futility in them when from Jan. 23 to March 4 they managed just five points.
The Leafs still may not be that good, but here’s why the current troubles don’t feel anything like those chronicled above.
To their credit, from Wilson to injured captain Dion Phaneuf and on down, the message has been consistent that the past is irrelevant. And why shouldn’t it be, given the dramatic turnover and a measurable change in tenor around the team?
Until the Leafs get players to produce offensively, they won’t be the type of team that even the lowly Sabres will fear. But other than perhaps two of their losses, the Leafs have at least been in the game.
Little victories don’t count in the standings, but they can’t hurt a team still trying to find its feet. That’s why points over the next two games would clear a huge mental barrier and further distance them from the misery of the past.