It doesn’t matter what time of the season it is, or whether a playoff spot or the Stanley Cup is in reach – when you’re coming off a win, as the Maple Leafs were in the wake of Thursday’s 3-1 victory over Carolina, you’re enjoying your trip to the rink much more than you would following a loss.
“We came in here today with a positive attitude,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said after practice Friday morning and in advance of Toronto’s tilt against the Canadiens in Montreal Saturday. “We had a good workout, the guys were feeling good, we had a good meeting went out for practice and had a good skate, kept it short and hard. And we all feel good and we’re looking forward to going to Montreal and doing it again on the weekend.”
“We’re obviously trying to play spoiler for teams moving up in the standings, and our goal is to go out there and win every night, so it’s nice when we succeed in that goal,” added Toronto centre Peter Holland.
There’s some tension in the Leafs dressing room these days, but that’s true of the NHL’s 29 other teams in the days and hours leading up to the league’s trade deadline (which falls this season on Feb. 29). However, the players are accustomed to the uncertainty, as it’s part of their job and they realize Toronto remains in the midst of a roster makeover that could lead to more deals being made. So, rather than fretting about it, they’re focusing on their on-ice jobs and looking to build some momentum throughout the final third of the regular season.
“This time of year comes around every season, and players might be a bit nervous about what’s going to happen with their future, but you can’t spend too much time worrying about it because things are going to happen that aren’t within your control,” Rielly said. “All you can do is play your best, be a good teammate and roll with the punches.”
For some of the newer Leafs players – the ones recalled from the American League’s Marlies after Toronto’s recent trades and bouts with the injury bug – these games are all about acclimating themselves to hockey’s best league, and that’s no easy task. But whether it’s forwards Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic or blueliners Stuart Percy and Viktor Loov, their task has been made easier thanks to the stellar work Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe has done preparing them for Leafs counterpart Mike Babcock’s system. That said, there’s still an adjustment period, and Buds veterans do their best to make the new guys feel welcome.
“When guys come up, we may play a little bit different,” Holland said. “As a group here we’re doing a good job of embracing them, helping them out a bit and letting them play with confidence, and that’s transitioning them over well.”
“I think they’re trying to get used to everything – the speed, how big the players are, the practices, Mike, the guys in general,” Rielly added. “It’s a big change, and the guys are handling it well. I think they’ve had a lot of success down there (with the Marlies), and it always helps when you come up here with confidence. You can get a couple games under your belt and start playing your game.”
For Babcock, the signs of a player who’s making the most of their NHL opportunity are clear, and so are the ramifications for them.
“If they play good, they get to play, if they don’t play good, you don’t get to play,” Babcock said Friday in his famous straightforward manner. “Each night, you watch them, and you learn a lot by watching them practice, too, because you do little drills to watch them and you see whether they can do it or can’t do it and you see the work they have to do.”
So that’s the task ahead for the Leafs in their remaining games of the 2015-16 campaign: prove to themselves and their teammates that they still want nothing more than to win and improve, and solidify a spot for them in Toronto next season. Nothing in the standings, and nothing that happens at the trade deadline, is going to change that goal.
“We’re all born with a burning desire to win,” said goalie James Reimer. “And that’s our focus here, no matter what.”