February 10, 2012
Leafs need to distance selves from the past
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
It will be no doubt be a pleasant ceremony honouring Mats Sundin at the Air Canada Centre Saturday night.
Tears may be shed and overdone speeches are likely to delay the start of the Leafs’ game against the Montreal Canadiens.
But when the puck is finally dropped, it will be time for the current Maple Leafs to further distance themselves from the bygone era and take care of the increasingly pressing business at hand.
This being Hockey Day In Canada with the Leafs-Habs game played to a full coast-to-coast audience, it will be another opportunity for the rest of the country to mock the historic club’s current run of ineptitude by raising the banner of a player who never won a Cup.
You celebrate what you have to celebrate though and Sundin is certainly a worthy candidate for his long and productive career as a Leaf.
It was the final three years of his tenure here, however, that started the team’s six-season run outside of the playoffs, a slide the current team is determined to end. A win against the Habs is merely the next assignment to that end in a busy and crucial stretch of the NHL schedule for the Leafs.
After losses in Philadelphia and Winnipeg over the previous three nights, the Leafs will work at limiting the damage of a losing streak. Only once this season the team has gone three consecutive games without gaining a point, a big reason why they are a serious player in the Eastern Conference playoff race 55 games in.
If there has been a challenge this past week, however, it is that the Leafs have found out what happens when they don’t have the legs to back up the high-tempo game that has taken them to this point. In Winnipeg, the team was justifiably weary from a game and late-night flight from Toronto the previous night. In Philly, the Flyers came out to both match the Leafs speed and force them into mistakes with an aggressive attack.
“In those times when you don’t quite have your legs, you’ve got to play with your head a little bit more,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said following a shorter than usual practice Friday at the Air Canada Centre.
“But that’s tough too when you are mentally tired as well as physically tired. (Thursday in Philly) you saw us give away the puck in the second period three times and it resulted in goals against. Each player has to try to understand what his energy level is and make adjustments to his game.
“You hope you don’t have, as these games build up, mental mistakes that pile on because you are emotionally or mentally a little bit off.”
The Leafs aren’t about to make excuses, but with 15 games in 30 nights, that up-tempo style will continue to be tested and by virtue of the workload alone, difficult to sustain.
Wilson will do what he can to preserve his player’s energy by making many morning skates optional down the stretch. The business portion of Friday’s practice was done in 45 minutes, for example, and the team didn’t practise Wednesday in Philadelphia as originally scheduled.
“It’s about working on the things you need to work on, staying sharp, but also about rest,” goalie James Reimer said. “It can be a little tiring, but we all kind of know how to take care of ourselves.”
Reimer, by the way, will get his third start this week as Wilson has given him the nod for Saturday’s date against the Habs. Both Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson are going to get work down the stretch, but the latest call would seem to affirm the perception that the coaching staff would like to see Reimer emerge as the clear No. 1.
As for the rest of the team, maybe they’ll get energized from the Sundin ceremony and finish a hectic week in style before departing on next week’s three-game road trip through Western Canada.
“Four games in six nights is tough for any team to go through, but we really try to push the pace in games and it takes a toll on you a little bit,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. “Every team has to do it, so we can’t use it as an excuse. We have to learn how to manage games and play smart when we are in stretches like that.”