If only practice really did make perfect, the Leafs might never lose again.
Five long days of workouts finally ended shortly after noon Friday and for the first time in a week, the young Leafs are itching to be hockey players again.
Game 3 of 82 set for Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre can’t come a minute too soon for the Leafs. To a man, they are anxious to test their 2-0 record against a Calgary Flames team likely still fired up from a 4-1 win over Montreal on Thursday.
But not having played since last Saturday, the Leafs have been on a routine more suited to an NFLer than an NHLer.
“Practice is fun, I guess, but we love to play,” Leafs goaltender James Reimer said following Friday’s final fine-tuning in Mimico.
“What is it someone said? We get paid to practice and we play for free. The games are where it’s at and I’m pretty excited to get back in the saddle.”
Practice has had a different tone around the team this year, however. With the addition of assistant coaches Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, brought in to replace fired Tim Hunter and Keith Acton, there has seemed to be more of a sharp edge to the on-ice workouts.
Even the three-day sojourn to CFB Trenton for a team getaway featured intense on-ice sessions where much of the time was spent hammering home the finer points of systems and lengthy work on the special teams that struggled so often last season.
“I thought we were pretty creative in our practices this week, none of them were the same,” coach Ron Wilson said on Friday. “And yet we accomplished a lot of the things we set out to do.”
Just how much the team gained from its week off, since nearly blowing a four-goal lead to the Ottawa Senators, will be put to the test in one of the team’s busiest stretches of the season, beginning from the standing start of its longest breaks.
The Leafs still have three remaining on the five-game homestand to start the season before a four-game road trip starting Thursday. All told, they will play five times in the next eight nights and six in 10.
“It was a real good week,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “A lot of teaching, a lot of systems stuff and we used it in the right way.
“Preparation is the biggest thing. We used it to our advantage. We were out there today saying ‘Let’s have a good practice and get playing again.’”
If anyone has had enough practice, it is Clarke MacArthur, one of the team’s biggest breakthrough players from a year ago who had to sit out the first two games due to a suspension he picked up late in the pre-season.
MacArthur will be back at his regular spot on a line with centre Mikhail Grabovski and winger Nik Kulemin looking to show his 62-point career season was worthy of the contract extension he signed in the summer.
“I always get nervous at the start of every year,” said MacArthur, who had 21 goals and 41 assists in his first season with the Leafs. “I always want to prove something. I know I can make plays, but you don’t feel confident until you start putting the puck in every year.
“I always feel worried for my job, not that I can’t sleep at night, but I don’t want anyone getting ahead of me, that’s for sure.”
The Leafs will be without Tim Connolly for the foreseeable future as the free-agent brought in to centre Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul remains injured. Connolly didn’t practice with the team at all Friday, leading to speculation the upper-body injury he suffered in a pre-season practice is worse than first feared.
Fortunately for the Leafs, Tyler Bozak has shown far more confidence as the centre of that line than he did in his rookie season and Kessel got things jumping early with a hat trick against the Sens.
On the blueline, Cody Franson will get a chance to take out the frustration of being a healthy scratch in the first two games. Rookie Jake Gardiner, the darling of training camp, is likely to be the odd man out.
The Leafs may have their hands full against the Flames, especially if it takes any time to find their game legs.
“We’ve got to simplify our game early until we find our tempo,” Wilson said. “No matter what you do in practice, and we worked hard, a game tempo is totally different. The hits mean something and the mistakes mean something.
“This has been a long week. You can only practise so much.”