After finishing a five-game road trip that took them through Western Canada last week, the Maple Leafs get to enjoy the comforts of Toronto and the full support of the Air Canada Centre crowd during a four-game homestand that begins Thursday against the New York Rangers. And although the road trip couldn’t be deemed a success and the Buds aren’t where they’d prefer to be in the standings, the mood in the dressing room remains upbeat as the players focus on building for the future.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “Some games we have a hard time staying consistent, but that’s standard for a young team, having those growing pains. It’s adversity, and you can’t just lie down and quit. And that’s something I feel like we’ve really been good at this year. But it seems like we’ll have a few good games, we’ll string them together, then we’ll kind of just lay an egg in the third or fourth game.
“Our work ethic’s there, but we’ve got to stick to the structure, because that’s our safety valve, and that’s the way we’re going to have to win games.”
“We’re getting better,” added goaltender James Reimer. “Obviously, we’d all like to be winning a lot more games, but at the end of the day, you want to do things right. And I think for the majority of the year, that’s what we’ve done. You’re going to have off games and go through tough times here and there, but when you’re playing honest, you feel good about yourself.”
Now, don’t take that to mean the Leafs are in any way satisfied with the way things have gone this year. Players live to put themselves in the most competitive situations, and when the playoffs aren’t a possibility, it can wear on them. That’s certainly true of blueliner Morgan Rielly, who made it clear Toronto’s season – and, more recently, a blowout 7-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Monday – didn’t sit well with him.
“We’re not happy – we don’t want to be where we are, and we’re coming off a game against Chicago that we’re not happy with,” Rielly said. “You want to win games, you want to be in the mix, you don’t want to be at the bottom. Have we made moves forward (this season)? Yeah, probably, but as players, we want to win.”
After the Buds take on the Blueshirts Thursday, they face the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday, the Nashville Predators Tuesday and the Carolina Hurricanes next Thursday to close out the homestand. All four of those franchises have post-season aspirations, and the opportunity to play spoiler will be prominent in the Leafs’ minds.
“That’s something we can look forward to for sure,” Kadri said. “Teams are going to be desperate to get points, especially now with the playoff run, and points being so valuable. Anytime we can steal one or two is going to be helpful for us and from a confidence standpoint as well, just to keep building in the right direction.”
As Kadri noted, consistency – be it game-to-game, or even period-to-period – has been an issue for the Leafs this year. But in their first season under head coach Mike Babcock, Toronto’s players have recognized the growth they’ve experienced both as individuals and as a unit. It’s a relatively small consolation compared to a Stanley Cup championship, but it’s not something to be discounted, either.
“We’ve had times where we’ve had some pretty good stretches,” Rielly said. “We know we can play with teams in this league, we know that we can win games against good teams. It’s just a matter of doing it every night.”
“I feel like we’ve been more consistent than in the past,” added Reimer. “But we’re learning, we’re getting better. Maybe it’s a process we’re going through, but it’s a good process.”