February 12, 2012
Trip West will test young Leafs
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - When the doors to the Leafs dressing room opened a little later than usual after Saturday’s borderline blowout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, there was no whiff of panic.
As evidence of the frustration, free weights were being slammed to the ground a little louder than usual in the adjacent workout room, perhaps, but no sense that the team was on the ropes despite losing 5-0 to their rival.
It is clear, however, that the team is about to find out what it has in its gut as it departs on a three-game trip through Western Canada.
After what promises to be a high-energy practice Monday morning at the MasterCard Centre, the team jets to Calgary where they will get things started Tuesday night.
They do so anxious to avoid their first four-game losing streak of the season and as close as they have been to desperate for a win in a campaign that so far has offered more promise than gloom. The closer they get to the finish, the more difficult it is becoming not to ride the highs and lows, especially when opportunities are squandered.
To its credit, the team has been resilient after poor efforts and has done a mostly credible job of minimizing the damage of losing streaks. It is one of the biggest reasons they are a serious playoff contender as they move into the final third of the season.
“It’s not from a lack of urgency or not knowing where we are at,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said of Saturday’s effort. “I don’t think there’s much more that needs to be said.”
No, the Leafs will provide their real answer over five nights that will see games in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. It may be asking a lot, but taking four of six points is near imperative to keep the team in clear goal of its immediate playoff prospects.
Piling on the challenge of the trip is that there doesn’t figure to be an easy one in the bunch. The first stop is Calgary where they will meet a Flames team that not only knocked off Western Conference heavyweight Vancouver on Saturday, but is in the thick of their own playoff race.
With no time to catch their breath, the Leafs play the Oilers up province the next night and will face a speedy, offensively talented team with nothing to lose. A dangerous opponent as those who faced Toronto down the stretch last season can attest.
And finally, it’s off to Vancouver to face the Stanley Cup finalists on Saturday night. If you count the two trips to Winnipeg this season, the Leafs are 3-11 since the lockout when they’ve played any team in the Canadian west. Some of that is ancient history, but facts are facts.
“I don’t care about the last year or 10 years or whatever,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said following Saturday’s loss. “We’ve got to rebound, but it’s one game at a time. You don’t look at the whole road trip. It’s prepare for the next game and learn what we need to learn from this game.”
While there might have been a temptation to call a practice Sunday following the disheartening effort against the Habs, Wilson resisted. At this point of the season, preserving energy and proper rest is far more important than a punitive denial of a scheduled off day.
Among the top concerns, however, is what is happening when the Leafs meet teams determined to thwart their speed with trap-like checking strategies. The Habs certainly fall into that category and coaching is good enough around the league that others will see the method to keeping the Leafs in check may be a little easier than first thought.
“We were just getting frustrated and playing right into (Montreal’s) hands and that’s a lesson we’ve got to learn and pick up on it quick,” Wilson acknowledged. “(The team has to) respond on this road trip. We’re probably going to be facing some teams playing similarly in their own buildings.”
Goaltending will be an obvious flashpoint as well and despite whatever protestations from coaching and management, it is a major concern right now. Letting five goals on 18 shots against a fragile team like the Habs obviously won’t cut it and at the same time risk eroding the confidence of the players in front of them. Something clearly isn’t right with James Reimer, who has set to go on a sustained consistent run and not having a defined No. 1 goaltender for a stretch run is less than ideal.
The Leafs managed to keep their tenuous hold on eighth through the weekend thanks to Washington’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers on Sunday afternoon. The Caps are one behind and still have a game in hand while 10th-place Winnipeg is four back.
Talk to us again in a week, however. If the Leafs show they’ve got something inside, Saturday’s debacle against Montreal will be as good as forgotten. If they don’t, the path to the playoffs will turn uphill, a journey tougher than anticipated through most of this season.