Riding a wave of confidence that’s accompanied their first winning streak of the season, the Maple Leafs prepared for Saturday’s home game against Vancouver believing they can compete with any team in the NHL, that they can dig themselves out of a deficit – and that, with a little better puck luck, their place in the Eastern Conference standings would be better.
“I think we deserve a little better record wise,” said Leafs winger P-A Parenteau, referring to Toronto’s 4-8-4 mark that includes a 3-1-2 run in their past six contests and road wins over talented teams in the Stars and Predators. “I think we’ve been playing some good hockey and it showed on the road there. Those are two tough places to win, and we got it done so it's very encouraging.”
As encouraging as the wins have been, it’s the manner in which the Buds are playing – win or lose – that has players and management most pleased. Whereas in previous seasons, an early-or-late-game deficit would prove nearly impossible for Toronto to overcome, this year’s Leafs squad shows no signs of white flag-waiving or a defeatist mentality. Their most recent win over Dallas came after the Stars took a 2-1 lead early in the third period, and in Nashville Thursday, the Buds shook off a 1-0 Preds advantage in the third to emerge with a 2-1 shootout victory.
With the battling nature of goalie James Reimer leading the way, they’re a determined group that opponents underestimate at their peril. And, according to head coach Mike Babcock, they can still tweak that mentality and become a more complete squad.
“When the game is tied or we're behind, the pedal is to the metal,” Babcock said after Toronto’s pre-game skate at Air Canada Centre Saturday. “When we're ahead we get careful and that's all part of learning how to win though. I mean, our philosophy is to play like the game is tied and go get the next one. That's what we want to do each and every night no matter what the score is. Just because I say that doesn't mean it's going to happen. You learn how to win. You flat our learn how to win and you learn how to stick to it and find out that things are going to go right. When you've won two games – when you're down one in the third – in a row against good teams you're more likely to do it again because you've earned the right to feel better about yourself.”
Although there is room to improve, veteran Leafs who’ve lived through struggles in past years are noting the never-say-die attitude in the dressing room and on the bench.
“The resilience has definitely been there,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “I think we have a little more confidence playing from behind, especially lately. We’re getting great goaltending, so we know that if we get behind, it’s not going to be by more than one or two goals. We’re finding ways to stay in the game, especially on the road, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
“I think that just comes with confidence,” added winger Joffrey Lupul. “Certainly, when we had the win in Dallas and we fell behind in Nashville, it just gives you a certain confidence that you can (come back) again. Ideally, you want to have the lead and be holding it, but we’re confident we can come from behind and we’re just trying to play the same the whole 60 minutes.”
All things considered, the Buds are feeling as positive as they have in months, if not longer. Babcock’s relentless drive is rubbing off on his charges, and although it will take a sustained effort at this level to bring Toronto back into the playoff race, Leafs players are fully buying in to the possibility they can get the job done.
“We compete hard,” said Parenteau, who has a pair of goals and four points in his past five games. “Mike has got that attitude going in everybody, and it’s showing. We know we have a pretty good hockey team, we can surprise teams every night especially when we've got great goaltending like James is giving us.
“I know we have people who were writing us off pretty early, but we feel good about ourselves and we know we can win hockey games. The expectations in the hockey world aren’t really there for us, but inside the locker room, we know what we can do.”