March 4, 2011
Young Leafs coming of ageGames force team to grow up fast
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
You could go through every motivational manual on the shelves and not come up with a better test for a team than nine consecutive one-goal games.
That’s what the young Maple Leafs have been through the past three weeks against National Hockey League clubs with far more experience in such matters. Yet, the Leafs’ post all-star break surge has not been curtailed, with a chance for another point or two on Saturday night against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Another one-goal decision breaks the team record from 2003, so patrons aren’t advised to leave early.
“We’re a team that has to work for everything we get,” defenceman Luke Schenn said Friday, not 24 hours after back-to-back come-from-behind wins over Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“We’re not, by any means, a high-powered explosive team. It’s nice to see we can battle back, but we’re not giving ourselves any kind of pat on the back right now. We have a long way to go.”
Toronto’s record is 6-0-3 in this spate of close results, 10-2-4 overall since the break, and 16-8-5 after New Year’s Day. To reach a playoff position for the first time in six years, they must still get past Buffalo and overhaul the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes or both, with three points to make up and 18 games remaining. Difficult, but not as daunting as at Christmas, when they were in danger of providing the Boston Bruins a chance at another lottery pick.
The abuse heaped upon the team at the time by fans and the media was the most vitriolic in memory. Yet, general manager Brian Burke kept the faith, coach Ron Wilson kept his job and the Leafs, while losing a lot, stayed in almost every game.
“You get beaten and battered so much that you develop a thick skin,” Wilson said of his players. “You can see that in games by how we play the third period. The scores are close, we’ve played well defensively and we generally find a way to get the job done.”
The Leafs have managed to stay in the hunt after trading their top offensive defenceman in Tomas Kaberle, reliable stay-at-home veteran Francois Beauchemin and a sparkplug in winger Kris Versteeg. And while they can’t claim to have more injuries to key players than other teams in the course of the season, they did lose their first- and second-string goaltenders, team captain and their most feared enforcer.
“We went way downhill and had to find a way to climb out of it and slowly build confidence,” Schenn said. “When you’re down like that, you can definitely learn a lot of things. The main thing is that everyone in the room wanted to be part of turning it around.
“In the past in here, maybe everyone was looking to someone else to turn it around for us, or (for management) to make a trade. Now, everyone in here wants to be ‘the guy’ and a lot of people are getting the opportunity they probably wouldn’t get on other teams.”
Wilson wondered if having the third-youngest team in the league wasn’t a blessing in rough times.
“Being naive is sometimes for the better when you keep hearing that you’re down too deep to get out,” he said. “It’s perseverance, learning how to play and attention to detail. It seems to be clicking in, especially for a young group, understanding and prioritizing things that happen during games.“
But Wilson knows much of the rally can be traced to the to a gangly kid from rural Manitoba, who stopped the bleeding in net.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that great goaltending has helped us move up,” Wilson said of James Reimer.
Speaking of which, Reimer has now played 21 games to qualify for the main page of NHL statistics, debuting at third in save percentage (.929) and seventh in goals-against average (2.28). Even with so many one-goal heroics, the whole bench checked its cardiac condition late Thursday night in Philly when Keith Aulie’s last-minute giveaway put Daniel Briere in business in the slot with less than a minute to play.
Reimer, whose luck also exceeds that of predecessors such as Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala, not only made the save, he recovered the rebound after Darryl Boyce accidentally swept it off the top of the cage into the crease.
“These one-goal games are character-builders,” Reimer said. “When games are tight, you have to keep mistakes to a minimum. When you make mistakes, you have to be there for each other.”