November 13, 2011
Leafs coach set to crack the whip
By Lance Hornby, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Seven years of living in the Rocky Mountains with the Colorado Avalanche taught John-Michael Liles a few things about wild weather patterns.
But just a few weeks in Toronto and the veteran defenceman has already seen dramatic swings in the hockey climate of the Air Canada Centre.
From a team that opened with a hot record of 5-0-1 at home, to a cold spell of 0-3 and outscored 17-3.
From October ovations when the Leafs saluted their fans post-game at centre ice, to getting booed off the pond Saturday when three team greats were feted for Hall of Fame induction.
From a fling in first overall to hearing the “fire Wilson” chants.
The ACC revealed its nasty side the past three games, a sobering message for new Leafs who might have thought working here would be 41 games with a forgiving fan base. Liles, one of eight players new to the team, insists he’s not discouraged about the fickle nature of the locals.
“Coming from someone who played in a different organization, you get excited to play here,” Liles insisted. “It’s a great building, you know it’s going to be a sellout every night and the majority of the time be on national TV. So you want to make it tough for other teams to come in and play.
“I love playing here, but I know it’s a place that other teams look forward to coming to because of the atmosphere.”
Coach Ron Wilson has seen this schizophrenic streak before. But with the danger of another promising start petering out — adversely affecting playoff chances and his own contract extension — he’s about to come down hard. Saturday’s post-game comments weren’t filtered to protect players who have not been keeping with the program.
“To be honest we had one line (going), the Tyler Bozak line,” said Wilson. “The (Mikhail) Grabovski line wasn’t a threat. Two of the wingers (Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur) didn’t have a shot on goal. We were alternating third and fourth lines and I was trying to get the Grabovski line a little extra ice time, but it didn’t work.”
Kulemin is stuck on two goals through 17 games. There was also a deadly double high-stick minor to Philippe Dupuis and a muck up when defenceman Dion Phaneuf moved up for a quick strike at the start of the third, but no one covered Zack Smith the other way for a breakaway goal.
Wilson saved his harshest criticism for the team’s overall inability to press the issue when up a goal.
It nearly cost them two nights earlier in St. Louis, but goalie Ben Scrivens bailed them out.
“(Ottawa made it 1-1) and then the inevitable things happen when you’re not digging in,” Wilson said. “We have to figure a way to push the pace for 60 minutes, use our speed to get behind them. Our problem is making tape (passes). We go from indirect hockey to trying to play direct when indirect is working.
“It’s a little frustrating to the coaches in the third period that after trying this bizarre experiment, they go back to the way we should be playing. If it works in the first period, I don’t know why we wouldn’t want to do that in the second.”
Wilson had some dark hints that Monday’s practice prior to playing Phoenix will be a gruelling refresher in doing the dirty jobs to keep hounding the puck .
Phaneuf insists the Leafs aren’t thick between the ears when this stuff is being preached, with up to six coaches on the ice some days in addition to Phaneuf’s own voice.
“It’s not from lack of preparation or not being focused,” the Leafs captain claimed. “We came out (Saturday) the way we have to and it got away from us. We’ve been guilty of doing it a little too much lately. Throughout the year, there are going to be a lot of these one-goal (situations). We’ll be up by one or down by one and have to find a way to win as a team. They seem to be slipping away from us.
“The identity of our team is a fast, fast team. And when we play to our strengths by chipping pucks and using speed, we’re a really tough team to play against.”
But lately, they’ve been making it tough on themselves, in what are supposed to be friendly confines.