Leafs must make their stand

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson speaks to the media in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 2, 2012. (MICHAEL...

Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson speaks to the media in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 2, 2012. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:13 AM ET

TORONTO - Talk of the playoffs seeped into the Maple Leafs dressing room on Monday.

Not that the players figure they’re all set for easily earning a post-season berth, of course.

Even with nine of their next 10 games at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs realize they will be in a fight to play in the spring long after the home stand ends.

“The ground we had made, we let it slip a little bit, and now it is going to be a tight race until the end,” said captain Dion Phaneuf, who along with teammates and staff took part in a team meeting at the MasterCard Centre before the first practice of 2012.

“Usually the playoff drive is the last month, and now it is a lot different than that. You look at the difference between sixth and 10th, there is not much, and we’re going to have to play the remainder of the games down the stretch like they are playoff games.”

The Leafs, in 10th in the Eastern Conference with 41 points, have not been great at the ACC, registering an 8-5-4 record, and that’s going to have to change starting on Tuesday night when the resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning visit. Toronto has not been an overly aggressive team, but establishing a presence at home is paramount to success.

The club recognizes the need to tighten up defensively, something that every team in the NHL will be doing as the games start to get more intense. The Leafs have allowed 125 goals, a total that had been eclipsed in the East by only the Ottawa Senators and the last-place Carolina Hurricanes prior to Monday’s games.

After the majority of their teammates had departed the ice on Monday, the defencemen stayed on as a group. Though the Leafs were fifth in the NHL with 587 blocked shots, coach Ron Wilson saw room for improvement.

“At times, we’re screening goalies and not blocking shots,” Wilson said. “We have to find a way to block them or get out of the way and let the goalie see it.

“With defensive-zone coverage, we worked on a couple of little alterations to get the puck back quicker and not waste so much time. There are a lot of harmless plays in our end, but we are spending 30, 40 seconds to get the puck back.”

Physically, there has to be an upgrade as well. As defenceman Luke Schenn said, opposing forwards are allowed to do too much in the Leafs’ end. At the other, the forecheck has not been as determined as it could be.

All of this, or the improvements made, will come into focus for the faithful in Toronto during the next three weeks before the all-star break. The Leafs, losers of three games in a row, play in Buffalo on Jan. 13 and in New York against the Islanders on Jan. 24, but otherwise will be settling in at the ACC.

The Winnipeg Jets, who dusted off the Leafs on New Year’s Eve, are a good role model, Wilson thought. The Jets won nine of 12 games at home in December, leaping to seventh in the East after starting the month in 13th.

“We have to have the same approach,” Wilson said. “We should be happy to be at home. Taking care of business is going to be huge for us. We have a lot of conference games, so they are going to be four-pointers.

“We know how the standings are shaping up and it’s going to be a dogfight.”

A positive attitude, something crucial that starts with the captain, will have to be in place in the Leafs room. If fingers start to get pointed, the Leafs will be out of the picture fast.

“You lose a few in a row and you’re sitting outside looking in and you win a couple, and you are back in it,” forward Matthew Lombardi said.

“So we can’t look at it in terms of being down on ourselves. We know we have to be better and we know that starts (with Tampa). It’s a big challenge and we are excited for it.”


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