Leafs continue to roll, in spoiler’s role
The arrival of spring has once again coincided with the thaw of a miserable winter freeze for the Maple Leafs that saw the team crawl into the Olympic break with a 19-31-11 record.
Since the resumption of games following Brian Burke and Ron Wilson’s run to the silver medal in Vancouver, the Leafs have gone on a 7-3-1 run in March, a stretch which has included the team’s first two overtime victories of what has been an otherwise forgettable, regrettable season.
“We want to win games,” said Kessel , who has shaken off a January slump and has found the net 7 times in the past nine games. “This year isn’t over, we want to play it out to the end, and try to win as many games as we can.”
Just as Caesar was cautioned to “beware the Ides of March”, any of Toronto’s remaining opponents over the club’s last 10 games of the season would be well advised to not approach the team as the doormats that they have been for most of the year. The Montreal Canadiens are no stranger to their archrivals’ sudden surge, having had their 6-game winning streak halted at the hands of the Leafs on Saturday night.
Tyler Bozak, who scored the opening goal in the win over the Habs, relishes the spoiler role that his team has assumed. “We feel really good. (Montreal) is fighting for a playoff spot and they need wins pretty bad. We’re getting more confident game by game, and it just feels better each night.”
Bozak, has formed a lethal forward line in between Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin; a unit that has collected a terrific 27 points in the past eight games. Coach Wilson praised Kulemin as the team’s ‘most complete player, right now’.
“He goes in hard and protects the puck, and he’s physical. He’s everything you want in a hockey player,” said Wilson of the young Russian winger.
The fans of Toronto are no stranger to outbursts of productivity at Air Canada Centre come springtime. In the five seasons since the lockout, the Leafs have never had a combined March/April record below .500, and have gone 48-32-7 in games played after March 1.
There is a downside to the impressive collection of wins earned near the vernal equinox; none of post-lockout winning streaks have vaulted the Leafs into a playoff spot. An abysmal 2009-10 campaign will once again see Toronto out of the post-season.
Despite knowing that they’ll be trading their hockey sticks for golf irons come playoff time, the Leaf players are aiming to make as many Eastern Conference rivals as possible join them on the first tee. Seven of Toronto’s 10 remaining games are against teams that were within five points of the final playoff spot in the East, as of games played Saturday.
“There’s pressure on young guys,” said Wilson of the incentive to perform. “We’re playing against teams where the points matter, so they’re playing hard against us. It’s important for these young guys to learn what it takes to play, to gather experience, and I think we’re playing the right way.
We’re not trying to put people to sleep. We’re on the attack.”
The Leafs attack has included back-to-back shootout wins in which forward John Mitchell has used the same deke move against goalies Yann Danis of New Jersey and Jaroslav Halak of Montreal to score both times.
“We’re a confident group in here,” said a smiling Mitchell after Saturday’s win. “Things have turned for us in the last few weeks. It’s great for our team, especially for all the young guys in here.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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