As the Maple Leafs prepared to take on Detroit Friday night, Red Wings legends Scotty Bowman and Nicklas Lidstrom strolled through the lower sections at Air Canada Centre. Toronto head coach Mike Babcock will always have an association with the Wings, but he’s left those allegiances in the past and his current players are well aware where his allegiances lie now.
“It’s obviously special anytime you play your old team, whether that’s player or coach,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said after the pre-game skate. “But I know that Babs is about our team here. He’s focused on our team and our organization. I think he was pretty clear he’s moved forward from there. Obviously, that’s a big part of his career and his past, but he made that clear that he’s all in here and we’re working for him. And we definitely want to win every game. But playing Detroit, it’s a big game, big points for both teams, and we understand that.”
Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul echoed Phaneuf’s sentiments, noting that Babcock got his first game against the Wings out of the way Oct. 9 when Toronto fell 4-0 to Detroit at Joe Louis Arena. As far as Lupul is concerned, Friday’s tilt will be like any other.
“I think we’re just preparing the same way,” Lupul said. “He already had the one game in Detroit, they did a nice little tribute to him. And for us, it’s just another game, and we need the points.”
As far as Babcock himself, the veteran bench boss understands the challenge of taking on a team steeped in tradition and winning, and has seen that in Detroit’s performance so far this season.
“They do things well,” Babcock said of the Wings. “They’ve got good players. Very impressed with (Detroit rookie Dylan) Larkin. I don’t think when I watch him I see what I expect. I thought they got off to a real good start this year, they had a bit of a hiccup, and now they seem to be playing better again. The Tampa-Detroit game (this past Tuesday), it was a good game to watch, it was high-level by both teams, so it’s fun to watch, lots of plays being made by good players. So it was good.”
Lupul also has a healthy respect for the Wings, and in particular, their consistency from game-to-game and year-to-year.
“They seem to have always played the same way, regardless of who’s left their lineup and who’s came in,” Lupul said. “They have that same way to play, they want to have the puck more than the opposition. They’ll provide a good challenge for us.”
Toronto is coming off of a heartbreaker of a loss Wednesday in which they played a strong 58 minutes against Winnipeg, only to have a late goal put them on the losing side of the ledger. But right now, Babcock is keeping his players positive and that attitude is trickling down throughout the roster.
“I thought we had our best game last game,” Babcock said, “but in the end – and we talk about this every day – we’re in the winning business. But we think we’re getting better.”
“We’re taking steps in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done,” Phaneuf said. “We’ve really worked on our structure and how we have to play, but it’s our job to work on that day-in and day-out.”
Lupul noted that it’s not easy for any hockey team to not win as often as it believes it ought to, but he too is taking stock of Toronto’s improved efforts and believes positive results will come.
“You can look at certain games and say we played really well,” Lupus said. “Obviously frustration’s going to creep in when you’re playing well and lose a game with two minutes left like we did the other day. But that’s hockey, and if we keep putting out that effort we put out the other night, we’re thinking about being successful more nights than not.”