TORONTO - Defenceman Mike Komisarek thinks the Maple Leafs “are starting to turn a corner.”
Just watch out for that orange and black bus with the Pennsylvania plates coming the other way.
Coach Randy Carlyle’s attempt to re-invent the Leafs in the final month of the season might be back at square one after Saturday night once the Philadelphia Flyers roll through en route to what could be a first-round series with their state rivals from Pittsburgh, who beat the Leafs on Wednesday.
Not only are the Flyers older, heavier and taller than the Leafs on average, they’ve won four straight games, have the NHL’s two best power-play marksman and the conference’s best man-advantage unit overall. Toronto will be trying to halt a two-game losing streak under its new coach, having lost 12 of 14 overall, and now without the scoring touch of Joffrey Lupul, the vinegar of Mike Brown and with many forwards in new positions.
“You look at our schedule now and we don’t have any easy games,” Komisarek said Friday at the MasterCard Centre. “We had a tough time last week with Boston and Pittsburgh, but if it wasn’t for a shift or two, a mistake or two here or there, we’re on the other side of those games.
“It was disappointing coming out of the week, but I think we’re starting to turn a corner. A little bit more attention to detail, like we’ve done in practice today, should pay off for us.”
If the Leafs have an edge, it’s that the Flyers’ brawn often works against them, as the NHL’s most short-handed team. That’s one of the reason Carlyle moved his power play’s practice to a fresh sheet of ice at the four-pad MCC after an hour of regular drills chopped up their main rink.
But if the Leafs get caught watching and wind up in the box themselves, they’ll be contending with Scott Hartnell, the league’s best with 15 power-play goals, assists leader Claude Girioux with 28 and Wayne Simmonds, who has nine goals with the extra man.
“Every successful power play is about causing havoc,” Hartnell said in a phone interview. “We have a really good special teams coach in Joey Mullen who had a great career. We’re watching lots of video.
“It’s about paying the price in front. Some new rules went in a couple of years ago to protect our guys and the refs have done a great job (monitoring) it. But you feel the blows in there and every few times you get that one shot or stick that gets through the padding and hurts for about 10 days.”
The Leafs, whose penalty-killing has been among their bright spots this season, are ready to shift the Flyers from their encampment.
“All good teams really have one thing in common: Guys in front of the net,” said James Reimer, the likely starting goalie. “Philly, Boston always seem like they have someone in your face, so you have to battle, whether it’s a shot or a pass across the front. I’m going to have to find sightlines, get into position in my crease and from then on, battle to clear rebounds.
“I had close to 40 shots last time (a 4-3 loss on Feb. 9) and that’s what they do, put the puck on net and go there. But the way we’re learning the game now under Randy’s style, we should be more than capable of beating them.”
With the Leafs unable to get to the 70-point plateau for weeks and bad news on the out-of-town board almost every night, Carlyle is trying to convince his team not to fret the big picture. But this could be one of the roughest spots on the schedule, with an afternoon daylight savings game in Washington on Sunday and then a swing through Florida where both Sunshine State teams are playing well. Division games in Boston and Ottawa wrap up the trip.
Carlyle spent time before and after Friday’s practice in the last of one-on-one meetings with the players he’s inherited since replacing Ron Wilson. He had a sitdown with defenceman Luke Schenn before the skate.
“It was based on him getting back to being a physical defenceman to play against,” Carlyle said. “That’s big for his confidence level, that he gets out there and creates a little space for himself. There was a game this year in Anaheim when I coached there that he was up against Corey Perry, one of our elite players. Luke was going back and forth with him, challenging him. I think Luke has to be a challenge to the opposition.
“I’ve had meetings periodically with every player. It’s part of the program so I can get to know them, get a clarification on what’s expected of them and what role they are going to play.”
Right now, that appears to be nothing better than playoff spoiler.