Excitement Not Lost on Young Maple Leafs
TORONTO – Pretty much to a man (and especially young man) the players in the Maple Leafs dressing room believe they are in the early stages of something special.
They know they’re exciting to watch and, with home-ice wins piling up, they’re starting to feel it.
Most believe the future is bright, though they’re wise enough to recognize that there’s plenty left to do in the rebuild. Just don’t mention that actual word.
On pace for 92 points, the Leafs (8-6-3) are just a couple of wins away from being prominent in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. And with the first quarter of the season arriving next week, it’s starting to become a viable sample size.
The defence may be a work in progress, though we’ve seen some improvements of late. But the confidence is certainly catching, from coach Mike Babcock on down.
“We approach every practice and every game like we’re one of those teams,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said of being a playoff contender. “We believe that we can play with anybody.
“As players, we have been really impressed with what the young guys have been able to do and when you add pieces that we have, I think it has maybe bumped (the rebuild) up a little bit.”
Who can blame Rielly, who is still awaiting his first NHL playoff game, for being excited at what he sees? And why would you want to douse that with cold water now, especially with the nightly thrills provided by players such as Mitch Marner and most recently, Connor Brown?
In their latest win, the Leafs beat a Florida Panthers team that piled up 103 points last season. Granted the Leafs won against a roster riddled with injuries and against a goalie, former Leaf James Reimer, who had one of the worst outings of his career.
But that’s back-to-back games with six goals, when you factor in Tuesday’s 6-2 win over Nashville, another playoff team from last season.
It certainly has the Leafs confident heading into a big Saturday-night challenge in Montreal, where they will look to improve their miserable 1-4-3 road record. With the Habs playing in Carolina on Friday and the Leafs in town resting, Babcock made sure his team will be extra rested by scrapping practice, a nice reward for Thursday’s effort.
Babcock, by the way, is a disciple of his former boss, Detroit GM Ken Holland, whose philosophy is that you need to be in the post-season race by U.S. Thanksgiving. The Leafs have games against the Habs, Hurricanes and Devils before that date.
“Well let’s just get better tomorrow and focus on doing that,” Babcock said as a caveat on post-season talk. “We’d like to be in a playoff race after 20 games. We have four games left in the segment before American Thanksgiving and that’s usually a telltale sign.”
Playoff talk in Toronto after a couple of big wins generally causes eye-rolling around the league, but the Leafs now have won six of their past eight. And with scoring potential on three lines, they are a serious threat most nights.
“You see teams that win, they have lots of lines that can score,” said rookie Brown, who showed what he can contribute with a two-goal, two-assist night in Thursday’s 6-1 win.
“You get a top line and sometimes if they get one a night, that might not do it. You’ve got to have three or four lines that can score.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons in that regard. We’ve got to keep getting better defensively, but we’ve proven we can score.”
Though not as flashy as fellow rookie Marner, Thursday’s effort was a showcase night for Brown. His four-point effort was a big breakthrough and the latest testament to the hard work he has put in since being selected in the sixth round (156th overall) of the 2012 draft.
If Marner is the highlight machine, Brown is a player who has earned his place by working so hard all over the ice, whether it’s scoring, back-checking or blocking shots.
Brown believes the team’s defensive game is coming around, a process helped by the increasingly solid play of Freddy Andersen in net.
“Defence is a commitment thing and guys are committed,” Brown said. “Your best players have to be your best players defensively and we’re starting have that of late. It’s why we are having success.
“Once we learn where to be and when and it becomes second nature to be there, we’ll even take another step forward.”
And then we can really start talking playoffs.
LEAFS LOOK TO RECTIFY ‘RECKLESS’ AND ‘SILLY’ ROAD TENDENCIES
Is the Mitch Marner show ready to shine on the road?
The Leafs rookie recognizes that if his team is going to be a playoff contender, it will soon need to improve on its 1-4-3 mark away from the Air Canada Centre.
“We’ve got to make sure we start becoming more aware of our surroundings on the road,” Marner said before Saturday’s contest in Montreal. “I think we’ve got to play smarter on the road. I think at home we play the game we want to play and on the road we play a little reckless.
“I think we’re getting better with that though and Montreal is going to be a big test for us.”
The Leafs, who have a league-high 18 back-to-back games this year, catch a break in that the Habs were in Carolina on Friday while Marner and his teammates were waiting in Montreal. The downside is that a rested Carey Price will be in the net for the Habs.
“I’m not concerned about our road (record) at all really,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “I think as we learn how to play better without the puck and do less silly things with the puck we’ll win more on the road.”