December 12, 2010
Leafs have fence-mending to do
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
As the Guess Who might sing, Maple Leafs memories will be runnin' back to Saskatoon this week, via Lethbridge, Regina, Winnipeg and both the Lloydminsters.
It's the team's annual Western Canadian jaunt to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, where the Leafs have serious fence-mending to do with some of their most ardent fans. Bad enough that the distant prairie provinces of Leafs Nation have seen Cup-winners sprout in Edmonton and Calgary and that the Canucks have been to the final twice. But the Leafs' domination of the trip in the past decade has soured since the lockout ended.
Toronto has a record of 2-7 the past three visits. Last year, for the first time in at least a decade, the Leafs lost all three games by identical 3-1 scores.
But this week, they're bringing some homegrown talent back with them for good measure and good will -- nine players who have strong connections to the region -- four from Saskatchewan, four from Alberta and Winnipeger Colton Orr. Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur grew up across the street on either side of the provincial border in Lloydminster. As Wendel Clark and Darcy Tucker's relatives used to do, many relatives will be making the drive or flight to see one or all of the games.
This familiarity doesn't guarantee wins of course, but it's perfect reverse psychology for the Leafs, when all those Ontario boys come into the Air Canada Centre on other teams, looking to kick blue and white butt.
"I'm going to have a ton of family in Edmonton and Calgary," Lethbridge winger Kris Versteeg said. "I have a lot of tickets put away in Calgary. It's always fun to play in front of friends and family and to see them after the game. I'm looking forward to getting out there."
It gets underway in Edmonton on Tuesday, but most of the hype will be when captain Dion Phaneuf goes back to the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday. It's almost the one-year anniversary of the trade that brought Phaneuf, winger Fredrik Sjostrom and defenceman Keith Aulie to the Leafs for Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan and Ian White.
Only Hagman and Stajan remain with the Flames, and you know the latter especially wants to show Toronto coach Ron Wilson a thing or two. But Calgary is only doing marginally better than the Leafs. Phaneuf, who made a strong impression in Calgary in his first few years, then tailed off, was not mourned too long in Cowtown. Though he professed surprise at the thought he'd get anything less than a respectful welcome, you know he'd like to deliver some big hits and score his first goal of the season there.
"I don't know why there would be any negatives," Phaneuf said. "It wasn't my choice to leave. I had a lot of great times there, made a lot of great friends and played a lot of hockey in that building. But it's not me going to Calgary, it's about our team going to win a hockey game."
The Leafs crowd phenomenon in the west was not lost on the Edmonton-born Phaneuf.
"I remember playing for Calgary when Toronto would come in, having half their end filled up for warmups. The support is unbelievable wherever we go and you see the support coast to coast.
"To win this one (3-1 against Montreal on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre) have a recovery day and get ready for that trip out west, it was big."
Phaneuf missed the 5-0 Leafs loss to Edmonton at the ACC on Dec. 2, but 22 points against the Oilers in 35 games is his best against any NHL team.
"I really look forward to playing in Edmonton in front of my family and friends," Phaneuf said. "It (Rexall Place) is always a special building to play in."
Sjostrom joked that he could "fly under the radar" in Calgary while the media mobbed Phaneuf, though he pointed out that he barely played half a year there.
But the bottom line is points. The first two games are certainly winnable, based on the Oilers and Flames being ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the Western Conference, but Edmonton is getting on a roll.
"You try and at least get two of three and finish above .500 out there," Versteeg said. "We're going to try and carry this positive momentum (from Saturday) into the next game.
"The guys did the things we've been talking about doing, but instead of talking, we did them. That's something we have to carry forward."