|Leafs coach Ron Wilson directs during practice at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto, (Dave Abel/QMI Agency, file)
TORONTO - For three weeks the Maple Leafs have lived in the NHL’s fast lane, rubbed shoulders with big-shot contenders, won key games, excited fans and had Lady Luck at their table.
But the points streak of 6-0-3 also glossed over some deficiencies in their game. Certainly Saturday’s visit from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks exposed at least one major crack that must be filled if this playoff push is to hold until April.
Few teams make the playoffs without two lines that can score or at least hold their own defensively. Coach Ron Wilson ran out of patience with his second line after Chicago jumped to a 3-0 lead, specifically minus-25 centre Tyler Bozak, who was bounced for Darryl Boyce and later, Tim Brent, neither the glamour type expected to ride with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
“They’re on for so many damn goals against,” an agitated Wilson said of the line. “Look at their plus-minus (Kessel is sub 22, newcomer Lupul minus 12). I have to change things up.
“Bozie, I thought was struggling a little bit and it was just to give an opportunity (to the pluggers). Boyce went out there and (Lupul) scored. So we’re just trying to shake it up a little bit, give a different look and motivate some other people.”
Bozak was shifted to the third line, which was beaten on the best Chicago goal of the night when Patrick Kane found a streaking Jonathan Toews. Bozak was also on the ice when old Frat Pack roomate Viktor Stalberg scored.
But Lupul accepted blame for a weak dump-in that the Hawks converted to an odd-man rush for a 2-0 goal. Though Lupul did score himself, it was just his third in 12 games since the trade with Anaheim and he’s minus-8 in that span. He has been getting the kid gloves’ treatment so far from his bosses and teammates because he has changed teams and has had recent injury woes.
“I’m definitely not using that as an excuse right now,” Lupul said. “We’re in a playoff drive right now. I would have liked to do a couple of things differently in the first period. I think we turned pucks over, up and down our lineup, and it hurt us. I know I had one that cost us.
“You’re not going to win or lose a game in the first minute of play. We should have responded better in the first period.”
But he wasn’t shocked to see Boyce and Brent on his line when things went sour.
“That will happen in a game when the play is being taken to you a little bit,” Lupul said. “(Wilson) was just trying to create a spark. I don’t think it’s going to be anything permanent. Our line has to be better.”
The juggling of centres either says a lot about Boyce and Brent’s ability as two-way players or underlines a lack of depth that general manager Brian Burke must address in the summer.
“We’re there when needed to do something like that,” Brent said. “It shows more confidence in us, which is nice. But we have to have four lines rolling. We have to bring our A game and when we don’t, we’re not a successful team.”
While goaltender James Reimer’s meteoric rise has been the talk of February, the mileage that Wilson is getting from some players who weren’t in the picture at training camp is remarkable.
“Talk about not even going to the golf tournament,” laughed Brent of being excluded from the team’s September day on the links. “I don’t think I was in the plans. But I wanted to make sure I came to camp and turned some heads and now, here we are.
“Boyce and (Joey) Crabb came up halfway through the year, which is a hard thing if you haven’t done it in the past. They’ve done well for themselves and obviously helped our team. Reimer is a huge part to this and they all deserve a lot of credit.”
The Leafs took Sunday off and now play seven straight against the Eastern Conference starting Tuesday on Long Island. They trailed eighth-place Carolina by four points and Buffalo by three before the Sabres played at Minnesota. The Rangers also won their second in a row to go seven ahead.
“There’s no need for a lot of scoreboard watching right now,” defenceman Luke Schenn said of the 16 games remaining. “We’ll need some help along the way, but we’re still in the driver’s seat.”