TORONTO - If the Maple Leafs can collect wins the way they’re about to rack up air miles, then 2012 will be a great air show.
As significant as beating Buffalo at home was the night before, taking the closing end of a back-to-back on foreign ice from a non-divisional opponent says just as much about serious playoff preparation. Toronto has three road games to see out the rolling year, Florida, Carolina and Winnipeg, a re-routing quirk caused by Atlanta’s late transfer north. Breaking for Christmas, the Leafs have a better road record (10-8) than at the ACC (8-5-4).
And some Leafs are dedicated marauders, such as Clarke MacArthur, with nine of his 10 goals in road whites, including one in the 5-3 win over the Isles. Joey Crabb — don’t tell him he’s a defensive player — has all six of his goals without his team holding last-line change, and the Leafs haven’t lost when he does light it. Joffrey Lupul, with his empty net goal Friday, has split his 38 overall points 19-19.
The second half of the equation is finishing consecutive games in convincing fashion. After going years without sweeping such a series, the Leafs did it four times last year as part of a second half recovery and this week’s twin wins in the Empire State mark their second in six tries in 2010-11. No more are on the books until later in January, but February and March are packed with consecutive games and three in four nights.
Last year on 10 occasions, there were Leafs who scored in both ends of a back-to-back, with three each by Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin. but until Nazem Kadri did it against the Sabres and Isles, only three had done it this year — road warriors MacArthur, Crabb and Lupul.
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
Coach Ron Wilson mused before Friday’s game about letting his assistants handle this one against their old team.
Scott Gordon was headmaster from 2008-10, influencing a few of the players on their roster. Greg Cronin was an assistant from 1998-2003. New York coach Jack Capuano, meanwhile, played 26 games for the Leafs in 1989-90.
Toronto’s Tim Connolly was an Isles’ first pick in 1999. Speaking of which, Connolly was very quiet in both games against the Sabres, where he spent the majority of his career, with no points and a minus-1. But one shift into Friday’s frolic and he had a nice assist and quickly added a helper on Carl Gunnarsson’s point shot. The Leafs hope he holds that killer instinct in the final four matches of the Buffalo series.
The Isles have seen their proud franchise sink in the standings, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play strong defence when they want.
Unfortunately, it’s off the ice where general manager Garth Snow is carrying on a long feud with Chris Botta, a former club media and public relations employee, who began writing a popular blog when interest in local newspapers waned. The Isles have questioned his motives and made it clear they wouldn’t allow him around.
Botta has since gained a credential from the New York Times to cover the Rangers and the NHL, but Snow warned he would not be permitted in the dressing room on Thursday when the Isles first visited MSG. A league communications rep, with a cell phone poised on speed dial to commissioner Gary Bettman, had to stay with Botta in the Isles’ room while he interviewed a player.
As was the case against the Sabres the night before, Leafs goalie James Reimer let some rebounds pop out of his glove and the Isles seemed to be going high on him with that in mind ... Reimer still likes to freeze pucks when he senses danger or the Leafs in need of a line change, but it often surprises the opposition and leads to some post-whistle scrums ... TV feeds of players arriving at the rink on the bus are usually pretty lame. But TSN scored by showing the Leafs boarding outside the Long Island Marriott for a trip to the rink that’s less than 200 yards — in balmy weather. The diplomatic suggestion was that the Leafs were conserving energy having played the night before ... Defenceman Jake Gardiner got his chance to get right back in the lineup when John-Michael Liles was scratched with a sore neck from a Paul Gaustad hit the night before. Then Gardiner rocked Tim Wallace with a heavy hit of his own, showing his little seen physical side ... Crabb’s goal was the Leafs’ fourth short-handed of the season.