As the Maple Leafs get set to embark on their first extended road trip of the season Tuesday, the more experienced members of the team recognized the week of travel together as a terrific opportunity in which to bond closer together as a unit - and build on an encouraging home-opener win over a division rival on Saturday.
"We've spent a lot of time together already at training camp and in the exhibition games, but it's a little different when you're on the road, on the plane, it's a good time," said centre Tyler Bozak. "It's an important trip for us. We want to start our road record off right, so we're excited for the challenge."
The Leafs flew out of Toronto in the mid-afternoon Tuesday after a spirited practice session at their west-end facility, heading first to Winnipeg for a showdown with the Jets, who are 1-2-0 on the season after falling to the Boston Bruins 4-1 Monday night. That was the same score the Buds beat the Bruins at on Saturday, and it's safe to assume they'll be motivated to take on the Leafs. Toronto, meanwhile, is aiming to put up a strong start to the game, the way they did against Boston - but with a notable difference.
"I think we got off to a really good start, and our compete level was pretty good early on," winger Matt Martin said of Saturday's win, which began with Toronto building a 3-0 lead before the Bruins began pushing back. "We can learn from the way we play when we're up 3-0 or 3-1. I think we started playing a little run-and-gun, which is what the other team wants. You start trading chances, and that's not something you want to do when you're in control of a game. So that's something we learn from. We're a young group, and every day we'll try to get better."
Another area of focus for the Buds is their power play, which had four opportunities in each of Toronto's first two games, but failed to convert any of them into goals against either Ottawa or Boston. Given that many veteran hockey people believe special team play is crucial to a team's success over the long haul of an 82-game season, that's something head coach Mike Babcock and his players need to improve.
"Win a faceoff, break out better, spend more time shooting the puck and getting it back," Babcock said Monday after practice when asked how the power play could turn things around." Altogether, it hasn't been very good, it hasn't been a momentum-builder. If anything (it's been) a momentum-drainer. We've got to fix that and get it going. I don't doubt that we can. We've just got to get dialled in and all get on the same page."
"That's one area we've got to improve on," added Bozak. "We're scoring a lot of even-strength goals, which is very nice. But if we mix in some power play goals, it'll help us a ton in the long run. Special teams usually seem to play a huge role in the standings at the end of the season, so it's something we've got to get better at."
After Wednesday's game, the Leafs depart immediately for Minnesota to take on the Wild on Thursday, then head to Chicago to face the always-dangerous Blackhawks Saturday night. The on-ice challenges are obvious, but it's the banter fans and media don't see when the team is travelling - the camaraderie on the plane rides and in hotel rooms; the practical jokes and rookie initiations - that can help solidify each player's willingness to go to, and through, the wall for each other.
"Obviously, when everyone's at home, you've got families and other priorities, and we don't get to spend as much time together," Martin said. "This is a good opportunity to get to know each other a little more, get out to dinner, and spend some time together.
"That's a big part of being a team - learning more and building that family-type atmosphere where you care for one another, not only as teammates but as individuals. I think that goes a long way."