Midwest mindset for Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:25 PM ET

During their 2,100-kilometre trek from Toronto to Denver and then home via St. Paul, Minn., and Detroit, the Maple Leafs’ playoff quest won’t get a friendly reception on the ice.

But this vital trip will still feel like home to a select groups, such as James Reimer, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, Joey Crabb and coach Ron Wilson. And if that can translate to points — the Leafs must stay close to eighth-place Buffalo until next week’s head-to-head with the Sabres — a week away won’t be the drag it seems on paper.

“We’ve played well on the road in general,” Wilson said, noting the Leafs’ 15-17-3 record this year away from the ACC and 6-2-2 the past 10. “We understand the stakes.”

The Leafs start Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, a pleasing prospect to goalie Reimer.

“That’s the closest NHL city to my family (around Morweena, Man.), so I will probably have a bunch of family and friends in the stands,” Reimer said. “It will be exciting to play in front of them.”

Reimer himself has driven through the Twin Cities a couple of times, but never played at the Xcel Energy Center or the Pepsi Center in Denver.

“A bunch of people have been saying they are beautiful buildings,” said Reimer, who ran his own record to 15-7-4 on Saturday with a 5-2 win over Boston.

Denver will be a homecoming for centre Tyler Bozak, who spent two years at the local university, where 57 points in 60 games in a two-year hitch convinced the Leafs to sign him as a free agent.

Bozak frequently tweets about the fortunes of the NCAA Pioneers, where he was a regional all-star academic player, still takes some off-season classes and trains with the Avalanche’s Paul Stastny in the summer. Crabb, coming off a three-point night on Saturday, spent four years at rival Colorado College.

For Phaneuf, the Avs were one of the biggest Northeast Division rivals of his old team, the Calgary Flames. The captain played 34 games against Colorado in his career, second only to Edmonton, netting 15 points.

“I played lots in the buildings we’re going to,” Phaneuf said. “In Minnesota, there’s lots of energy, lots of noise, but they play hard and don’t give you a lot.”

The University of Minnesota was also home to Phil Kessel for a year and the Wild’s general manager is Chuck Fletcher, son of Leafs’ exec Cliff. Besides Phaneuf, the Leafs’ Western Conference veterans include forwards Mike Brown, Fredrik Sjostrom, Joffrey Lupul, defenceman Brett Lebda and if need be, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

“We haven’t been out there much, but we can’t be worried about where we’re going,” Brown cautioned. “We have to focus on each game at a time.”

Detroit is a second home for the coach, who was born across the river in Windsor. Both his father Larry and uncle Johnny played on Cup-winning teams in the Motor City. Wilson’s first game behind the Toronto bench in 2008 was a 3-2 win at Joe Louis Arena on a Nikolai Kulemin goal. The Saturday night match would be Lebda’s first game against his old team.

Of course, there is a massive 20-point swing between the Cup-contending Wings and the Leafs, but there are Original Six and Norris Division sentiments that run deep and the Leafs usually give a good account of themselves there.

“It’s going to be a tough trip,” Wilson said. “Minnesota is in worse shape than we are in the standings, so they’ll be desperate. Colorado, they’ve really been struggling the last 20 to 25 games, so we’ll have to find a way to win in there. Then we’ll see what kind of energy we have left for Detroit.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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