January 30, 2012
Leafs shed their camouflage
By TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The next time you hear an National Hockey League player — or, in this case, a Maple Leaf — say he does not pay attention to the standings, listen to what defenceman Mike Komisarek told a couple of reporters on Monday.
“We’re always looking at the standings,” Komisarek said after the Leafs practised for the first time following the all-star break. “When we come in the morning, they are always up on the board. We know exactly where we stand.”
There might come a day when a player who wears the Leafs sweater has no such worries and is firm in the knowledge that his team has a playoff spot sewn up. But for the Leafs, checking the standings with regularity is a fact of life, and when NHL games resume on Tuesday night, they know the challenge will be formidable.
Thirty-three games are left for the Leafs. They have 55 points and are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. It’s probable that no less than 39 points in their remaining games, starting with Tuesday’s match in Pittsburgh against the Penguins and ending with the regular-season finale in Montreal on April 7, will be required for a ticket to the Stanley Cup tournament.
“(The pressure) is the same as it always has been,” coach Ron Wilson said. “As a coach I have been in this position before where you have to mount a push, and usually have been pretty good at it.
“This is the time of year where all the seeds you have planted throughout the season, you hope they start to bear fruit. I think the last week or 10 days (before the break) we have done some things really well, and now we are going to see if we can continue it.”
There’s a bit of good news on the horizon, as the Leafs are approaching complete health for the first time in 2011-12. The three injured players — forwards Colby Armstrong (concussion) and Darryl Boyce (back) and defenceman John-Michael Liles (defenceman) — participated in the full practice at the MasterCard Centre. Though none will play against the Penguins in the opener of a home-and-home set that concludes on Wednesday night in Toronto, all three are close to returning, and they could see action on Wednesday.
The absentees from practice were the Leafs’ three all-stars — captain Dion Phaneuf and forwards Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel — but the trio joined their teammates for the flight to Pennsylvania.
As long as no one else gets hurt, Wilson and management could have some difficult calls when Armstrong and Liles are activated from injured reserve. Defenceman Keith Aulie could be headed back to the Toronto Marlies, a fate that could await Boyce as well.
The depth issue is one that Wilson would rather face head on than not have at all. He was asked if the Leafs team as it stands now is the best one he has coached since taking over in 2008.
“The best thing about the group is depth, and maybe right now there’s too much,” Wilson said. “So we’ve got, in the next week or so, some really tough decisions to make. But yeah, we feel every night we step out there we can win the game, without having to camouflage an area of weakness. I think we’re capable if we work hard every night of beating anybody.”
That begins with the Penguins, winners of seven of their final 10 games prior to the all-star recess. No Sidney Crosby to worry about, but Evgeni Malkin has designs on the Art Ross Trophy.
“We had two big wins before the break (against the New York Islanders) and we feel good about ourselves,” Komisarek said. “We have our hot duo of Phil and Lupes, and they have Malkin and (James) Neal. It’s going to be huge to shut those guys down. It’s about getting off to a good start.
“Every night, these are our playoff games. Every point is critical.”