December 1, 2010
Leafs players focused on winning
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Maple Leafs thought they had put all talk of the Oilers, last place and lost lottery picks behind them this season.
But here comes Edmonton to the Air Canada Centre, the only team worse than the Leafs last year, threatening to pass Toronto in a battle of bottom feeders.
It could lead to even worse optics on Saturday when Tyler Seguin and the Boston Bruins get here. Boston holds the Leafs’ first-rounder again and heaven forbid it turns into another top five pick next June.
“You want to win games ... no one thinks about the draft,” said Phil Kessel, who has a vested interest in firing a goal or two in the next 72 hours to take heat off himself and boss Brian Burke.
“(Thursday) will be another important game for us.”
The Leafs spent Wednesday at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke getting over the shock of their late collapse and 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
“That’s happened twice now,” Kessel noted of a crash and burn against the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 6. “You can’t lose games like that. Those are big points we are giving up.”
The Leafs (8-11-4) have the schedule on their side against the Oilers, who played Montreal before flying here. But the Leafs have lost a character player in Mike Brown to a broken finger and still won’t have the injured Colby Armstrong or Dion Phaneuf back.
Like Kessel, defenceman Luke Schenn wants to look at what the Leafs could accomplish this week rather than turn back the clock.
“Just look at the playoff race,” Schenn said. “We have two big games this week and if we get the two wins, we’re right back in the thick of things.
“We’re getting some help right now from the top eight teams. It’s not like they’re running away with anything so far. One or two good weeks in a row and you’re right back into it.
“Luckily, we have a few more home games now and we’ll try and use that to our advantage. We’ll get out on the road and try and start something there, too.”
But Schenn also knows actions speak louder than words.
The Leafs did put out a great effort for about 45 minutes on Tuesday, keeping Steven Stamkos and the dangerous Lightning attack under wraps. But they couldn’t hit the empty net, surrendered the tying goal with less than 10 seconds remaining to play and lost in overtime.
Just because the Oilers are last in the Western Conference again and will be fatigued doesn’t mean the Leafs can take them lightly. They have an average age of 26.9, sixth youngest in the NHL compared to the greenest of the 30 clubs, the Leafs at 26.0.
Coach Ron Wilson couldn’t resist a dig at critics of his team’s prospect development program.
“We’re the youngest ... How can that be when we don’t have any draft (picks)? That’s always the big (story).”
But he did agree that Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi of the Oilers could get into a crowd-pleasing track meet with Leafs such as Kessel, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak.
“It will be a fast game and I think we’re prepared for that,” Wilson said. “We have to make smart plays and get to the front of the net.
“It’s my guess that (2008 ex-Leaf) Martin Gerber is going to play. So we have someone coming in who was very popular the couple of months he was here. He battles and he’s a great guy. We have to find a way to solve him and get some of our guys going.”
Jonas Gustavsson smashed his stick in anger Tuesday night when the Leafs gave up the tying goal and almost turned it into kindling again as cameras caught him stomping up the tunnel after Simon Gagne scored the winner in overtime.
“For the moment, it’s tougher to lose a game with just a couple of seconds to play,” the usually unflappable Gustavsson said. “But two hours later, there’s no difference whether you lose by one goal or four goals.”
He hopes for a more dignified departure on Thursday, this time with two points.