The Toronto Maple Leafs, back on the ice at Air Canada Centre tonight against the Boston Bruins, return home a different team than the one that set out a week ago.
Some things are better. Some things are shakier. Some things are pending.
Start with the pending. The Maple Leafs seem destined to have a new general manager with Brian Burke’s sudden availability. The story will dominate the headlines until something actually happens.
A Western road junket reinforced the Leafs’ place in the consciousness of Canadian hockey fans and maybe just Canadians period. For most of the Leafs, this was their first trip over the Rockies while a member of the blue and white.
“Someone in Vancouver had a sign that said ‘God’s Team,’” said defenceman Jeff Finger
. “First time I’d ever seen that. We sometimes had louder chants going for us than the home team did. It was amazing.”
“Vancouver was incredible,” said defenceman Anton Stralman. “It was pretty cool to see all the Leafs fans. We even heard it before and after the game. It was amazing.”
“You do get a sense of how important the team is nationally,” said coach Ron Wilson.
That can only help.
But a few other elements emerged from the loss in Calgary, win in Edmonton and loss in Vancouver.
The Maple Leafs sit dead last in the penalty kill. Opponents are scoring at a percentage of 27.8. Tomas Kaberle has been shifted off the penalty kill with Anton Stralman going in Wilson makes no secret about why he sends the young Swede out when the team is a man down.
“(Using Stralman is) just as much a wake up call to the other guys who aren’t getting the job done,” he said.
There will be no changes in the lineup tonight. John Mitchell, out with a shoulder injury, will be reinserted into the lineup Saturday against the Blackhawks. Ian White continues to rotate between the blueline and forward, while Jonas Frogren’s stint in the press box continues unabated. Vesa Toskala is back in goal after being chased against the Canucks.
The defining moment of the trip came early in the Leafs 4-2 loss in Vancouver. The Leafs enjoyed an early five on three advantage and fired 10 shots that Roberto Luongo managed to repel. The Canucks, meanwhile, scored on their first shot by Kyle Wellwood. The Leafs outshot Vancouver 30-15.
When Wilson looks at the penalty kill, he sees a team still struggling to avoid screening the goalie and a club grounded by an inability to win faceoffs. But he also returns to Toskala who endured a middling road trip.
“He’s got to fight and be more aggressive in screen situations,” Wilson said.
“In the tough times he’s had a tendency to stay deep in the net. When you’re not a really big goalie that opens up a lot of holes. He’s got to work to get out to the top of the crease.”
The Bruins, meanwhile, beat the Leafs 5-2 the last time they played, Nov. 6. They haven’t lost in regulation in six contests.