TORONTO - The path to respectability for the Maple Leafs was supposed to take several forms, but most notable was one of many commandments from general manager Brian Burke.
Prior to the season, Burke said it was imperative that the Air Canada Centre become, for once, a place where opponents dreaded coming.
He wanted opponents to look across the ice during the pre-game skate and know they were going to be in for a long night. That they were going to be hit and pay the price for every loose puck.
And he wanted the building to be electric, a true home-ice advantage that would ensure appropriate results to follow.
Granted, it was a leg-weary group of Leafs that faced the Calgary Flames on Saturday night, but a 2-1 shootout loss was just the latest example of how there just hasn’t been much for visiting teams to fear about facing the Leafs so far this season.
Overall, it has been a big January for coach Ron Wilson’s crew, with 11 points already (on a 5-2-1 record) matching the output of a strong October, the most productive month thus far. A five-game winning streak on the road was particularly impressive and seemed to build confidence in a group in need of a hit.
But unless the success away from home is matched by an even better record in their own building, it matters little as the team tries to wrestle its way into the outer fringes of playoff contention.
“It showed a lot of character and it showed a lot about our group, the way we’ve been playing the last couple of weeks,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said of the late rally on Saturday to force overtime.
“We’ve been in every hockey game and we’ve battled right to the end.”
Salvaging a point out of a dull game certainly was worth something. After three games in four nights out West and a long flight home Friday, it was going to take some time for the legs to respond.
But as one of just five teams in the league to have fewer wins at home than losses prior to Sunday’s action, they are hurting themselves if they don’t take advantage of vulnerable teams coming into their building. The Leafs have just one win in their past six home dates — and a 9-10-4 record at the ACC overall.
Over the years, we’ve heard any number of explanations/excuses for the struggles here from a dead building to opposing teams being full of players who relish the idea of playing in front of friends and family.
As long as they play games in Toronto, the scenery and its challenges aren’t likely to change soon, however.
“Weird things happen throughout the year,” centre Tyler Bozak said. “We’ve been hot on the road lately and haven’t won too many at home. Obviously we need to make that change.”
Much of it gets back to the Burke premise of making it tough sledding for any visitor, regardless of who is tired and how tough the travel has been.
On Saturday, the Leafs sure could have used a dose of Mike Brown, suspended for three games after missing 19 due to injury. They could have used the hustle of Kris Versteeg, out again with an undisclosed “upper-body injury.” But they also could have used a big hit from Dion Phaneuf or Mike Komisarek just to light a fire under the team or the building.
With a break before their next contest this Wednesday in Manhattan, Wilson gave his team a complete day off on Sunday to recover from the gruelling recent stretch, though it doesn’t get much easier in the short term.
Starting with the game against the Rangers, the Leafs are scheduled to play five games in seven nights heading into the all-star break. Three of those are on the road — including back-to-back road games against Carolina and Tampa Bay next week — and two at the Air Canada Centre.
As the season has moved past the midway point, the Leafs’ longest winning streak at the Air Canada Centre is a modest three games.
That they have won the same amount of games on the road in two less games as they have at home makes it seem even worse.