October 5, 2011
Fans impatient and Leafs know it
By TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Optimism is a part of the general feeling involving most National Hockey League teams prior to the initial drop of the puck.
After all, no games have been played, hence, no team has been left behind.
But for the Maple Leafs and their fans, there’s an undercurrent of another emotion, one that’s the result of a seven-year playoff drought.
“You can feel it,” forward Colby Armstrong said on Wednesday after the Leafs’ final practice before their Thursday night regular-season opener against the Montreal Canadiens.
“(The fans) want it, and they want it to be this year. The guys do too. We know it’s time, and we got to have it this year. That’s our goal. Not only the fans, but I think everybody in this dressing room wants the exact same thing.”
General manager Brian Burke likes to remind everyone that this group of Leafs can’t be held responsible for all of the years since 1967 that the team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup. And he’s right. Even the playoff mystery that began after the Leafs were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004 isn’t one that every current player shares. But the non-playoff years are there for anyone to see, and the players must take responsibility for those of which they are a part.
Will the Leafs get back to the post-season next spring? Only Toronto and the Florida Panthers have not skated in an NHL playoff game since the lockout that wiped clean the 2004-05 season ended.
“I never make any guarantees,” coach Ron Wilson said, when asked if he would do just that regarding a playoff berth. “That’s ridiculous.”
But Wilson figured that of the four times he has broken camp with the Leafs, this collection of players gives the organization the most legitimate shot.
“This clearly is the deepest team and most skilled team we have had,” Wilson said. “It’s an entirely different feeling. We started well last year, but I think what makes us feel really good this year is we believe in our goaltending probably more than we ever have.”
The Leafs will start without centre Tim Connolly, who is on injured reserve with an upper-body injury, and Nazem Kadri, who is nursing a sprained knee. The placement of Connolly on the IR got the Leafs down to the league-mandated 23-man roster prior to the deadline on Wednesday afternoon.
Though Connolly eventually could help Phil Kessel reach 40-45 goals, David Steckel will win more faceoffs than he loses and John-Michael Liles gives the Leafs increased mobility on the back end, any success will hinge on goalie James Reimer.
Not surprisingly, the 23-year-old from small-town Manitoba was deflecting some of the heat on Wednesday. Pressure? Reimer is doing fine, thanks, and was thinking of not much more than the Canadiens.
“Montreal is a quick team, a lot of speed,” Reimer said. “They added Erik Cole, which is a big addition. We’ve been preparing for them all week, and it has been a different atmosphere. Usually we have one practice day for a team, but we have had a solid three days to work on stuff. We’ve been preparing for them all week.”
Wilson was asked whether there will be more on Reimer’s shoulders because he starts the season as the No. 1 guy. At this time last year, Reimer was a Toronto Marlie.
“No differently than last year, because the last two months, he was clearly our No. 1 goalie and he handled that,” Wilson said. “He just has to do what he does well and shut out all the noise. We believe he is a No. 1 goalie and will have a great year.”
Wilson should hope so. If not, his job could be in peril, whether it’s in four weeks or four months. A good start by the Leafs in their initial 20-25 games could sway Burke to signing Wilson to a contract extension.
The answers to the questions that have engaged Leafs Nation all summer finally will start filtering out on Thursday night.
Let the games begin.