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Leafs prepare for Western Conference swing

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

Once you become a Maple Leafs player, you almost instantly reach a recognition level among the public that takes some adjusting to. But even veteran Leafs are sometimes surprised at the power the Blue & White has in making you familiar to perfect strangers – and not just in Toronto, either.

Take goaltender James Reimer, for instance. The 27-year-old has become accustomed to Torontonians recognizing him in and around the city, but he was taken aback when, during a vacation that took him to one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, he was spotted by people who knew exactly who he was.

“A couple years ago, we were on the second level at the Eiffel Tower, and someone came up and said hello,” Reimer said of a summer trip to Europe he and wife, April, embarked on. “I think they were people from Toronto, though, so I’m not sure if that really counts, but there you go.”

Oh, it counts, alright. The vast reach of and emotion behind Leafs Nation is always something to behold, and one night early in Reimer’s six-year NHL career, when the Buds were in Edmonton to take on the Oilers, still stands out as especially remarkable for him in that regard.

“The most surprising thing I’ve ever had, was, I think it was my second year, and my first game in Edmonton,” Reimer said. “We stepped on the ice, and the place erupted. And it was the only time in my career where the crowd noise has surprised me. I stepped on the ice and I was like, ‘Oh, Edmonton must be stepping on the ice at the same time,’ but there was no sight of them. They were just cheering for us, and it was loud. It was crazy; it was like a home game.”

Reimer and his teammates will be back in Edmonton on Thursday of this week as part of a four-game road trip that also includes stops in Calgary Tuesday, Vancouver Saturday and Chicago Monday. As always, Leafs jerseys will be seen in each of those cities, and after a less-than-ideal showing against the Ottawa Senators over the weekend, Toronto’s players are intent on giving all the team’s fans much more to cheer about.

“We didn’t love our start and we didn’t love our game in general,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said of Toronto’s 6-1 defeat at the hands of the Senators Saturday. “I feel like we didn’t execute the game plan, we didn’t give ourselves a good chance to win. So we talked about having a good response, and getting as many of the eight points as we can get on the road.”

“Right now, the biggest thing for us is that we bounce back and start playing our style again,” added defenseman Morgan Rielly. “We’ve got to get back to what makes us successful: that’s hard work, playing our style and being accountable. Practice today was about getting back into our routine, working hard and looking forward to playing tomorrow.”

The injury bug has bitten into the Leafs in recent days, and as a result, centre Tyler Bozak, winger Joffrey Lupul and forward Shawn Matthias won’t be making the trip out west. That’s opened up opportunities for forwards Josh Leivo, Mark Arcobello and Rich Clune – all of whom were recalled from the American League’s Marlies on Monday – and head coach Mike Babcock is hoping they (or anyone, at this stage in the season) takes advantage of it. His team’s ability to produce offence has taken a big hit beginning with the injury-related absence of winger James van Riemsdyk, and he’ll take help from anyone who can help the group regain their confidence with the puck.

“It’s real clear how we have to play with our lineup,” Babcock said after practice. “We were really rolling there when James was with us. Obviously, we’re more offensively-challenged (now), but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to win. Play well without the puck, check real hard and compete real hard, score on your power play, stay out of the penalty box. So there’s lots of good ways to go about it. I think there’s a real challenge for us, and we’re excited about doing it.”

And, no doubt, Leafs Nation out west, and everywhere else, will be excited to see them.

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