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Leafs Put To Work At Punishing Practice

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
When the Maple Leafs lost Wednesday night by a 5-0 count in Buffalo, they did more than throw rookie goalie Justin Pogge under the bus.

They guaranteed that work on Thursday would not be pleasant.

It’s a coda as old as the sport itself. Mail in a game and you had better check the calendar. If you don’t play the next night, odds are you’re heading for the punishment skate.

And that’s what the Leafs got, Thursday at Air Canada Centre.

“I don’t know if everybody knew, but I definitely knew it was coming,” said veteran defenceman Mike Van Ryn. “I think all the older guys knew.”

The drills emphasized contact. Little was said through more than an hour of absolute leg-burning punishment

Coaches use other words than punishment, of course.

“I don’t think it was that hard,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. It wasn’t punishment, it was conditioning. Simple as that. We’re going to start working a lot more on our conditioning. I don’t think we are near what we need to be. That’s something that I can address, and I will.”

Of course, little had been said about punishment before the debacle in Buffalo.

“When they leave the rink they should feel like they are tired,” Wilson conceded. “They didn’t feel tired after the game last night. I want to get them to understand that you give your all in a game.”

The punishment skate isn’t burdened with hidden meaning or psychology. It’s a spanking, not a grounding. It hurts, but it’s soon over and quickly forgotten.

“We had a hard practice today,” Wilson said. “Tomorrow’s another day.”

The punishment skate is as old as the game. It is understood everywhere.

“We got it way worse when I was in high school than in pro,” said defenceman Jeff Finger. “My coach there was one of the worst.”

“It was something of a punishment but the punishment fits our effort,” said winger Brad May. “We have to work harder. There’s no complaint. We deserved it. You roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

That’s the goal of the punishment practice, to reintroduce the players to the cost of winning whenever human nature induces them to coast.

“It’s just sending a message that we have to compete more,” said Van Ryn. I think last night we lost it mentally a little bit. You’ve got to be tough mentally. That’s what those drills are for, to make us think when we’re tired. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger.”

The Leafs journey to Montreal to play the Canadiens on Saturday. They then head south to play the Florida Panthers on Tuesday and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. They are nine points out of eighth place.

Their ability to move North in the standings is directly tied to being able to lower their goals against. The Leafs goals against average is a morbidly obese 3.52. The team has the league’s worst goals against total, 191. By comparison, Wilson’s old team, the San Jose Sharks, have given up just 112.

What is telling is that the team’s save percentage is also a league low .873. Vesa Toskala, who has played in 44 of the team’s 52 games, has the worst save percentage among starters, .883.

Wilson said every element of the defence has to be fixed.

“We’ve got to cut down on chances and we need more saves. We have the worst save percentage in the league, that’s got to improve and we’ve got to cut down on scoring chances.”

Expect speedy forward Mikhail Grabovski to be back in the lineup, Saturday. Grabovski was scratched after what Wilson considered numerous defensive transgressions. The Leafs have also called up 25-year-old defenceman Staffan Kronwall from the Marlies but he must clear waivers before he can be put on the NHL roster.

Toskala practiced on Thursday and is expected to make the start in Montreal.
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