Just in from the West Coast but heading who knows where, the Maple Leafs return to home ice tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
The Leafs have lost five straight and going into play stood eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They have 36 games to play after tonight.
The sense of urgency has been stirred by media frenzy over potential changes. This morning, the armada of nine cameras included two from national news agencies.
Media people like to ask if they are distracting, over and over and over.
Leafs coach Paul Maurice was gassed in Carolina after eight seasons with the franchise. He understands the drill.
“That experience helps,” he said. “You have the opportunity every day to get things on the right track and get that one positive feeling that you hopefully build on. As you go though stretches where it becomes more and more negative, one win means even more.”
That one win seems a distance away. The last time the two teams played, Alexei Ponikarovsky was too casual with an empty net opportunity and the Hurricanes scored twice in the last 1:25 to tie the score. They won in overtime. The Hurricanes 7-1 victory over the Leafs October 7 was one of the low points of the Toronto season.
“They’re a very, very aggressive forechecking speed,” Maurice said. “They have aggressive lines. They like to push the pace. Their transition game is outstanding, they run a different neutral zone than a lot of teams and they are looking to pick off as many passes as they can. If they get going they are hard to stop.”
The Leafs hope to do that through the usual devices, a solid forecheck, good defence and goaltending. The Leafs Vesa Toskala will face backup Michael Leighton who is playing only his third game of the season.
The trick, said Hal Gill, is to have a little fun out there.
“Distractions can’t affect you,” he said. “You’ve got to be professional and enjoy yourself. Lots of time when you have fun and enjoy the game you play well. We have to find a way to get to that happy place."