TORONTO – For all of the signs of success and improvement the Toronto Maple Leafs have demonstrated so far this season, there’s still one thing they’ve failed to do: Beat the Boston Bruins.
Toronto gets its fourth crack at the reigning Stanley Cup champions on Saturday night at TD Banknorth Garden with the memory of three lopsided losses impossible to ignore.
“It’s tough because now you look at the standings and it’s us and them at the top (of the Northeast Division),” Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said after Friday’s practice. “If we’d done better in those three games, we’d have a cushion right now.”
The fact he could even muse about a potential cushion at this point of the season demonstrates just how far the team has come.
A disastrous stretch in November a year ago doomed the Maple Leafs to a sixth straight season out of the playoffs. The players boarded a plane Friday afternoon—along with their fathers, along for an annual road trip—sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference.
“I know just in reading and hearing around that the month of November has been a problem for this team in the past,” said Lupul. “We got through that pretty well, we’re still around near the top of the conference. Now it’s a matter of just doing it day in, day out—making it habit and turning this from a good start into a good year all the way through.
“That’s our focus now, take this to the next level and be competitive every night.”
There’s no better time to demonstrate that than against Boston on Saturday night. After all, the Leafs won’t face their nemesis again until a pair of games in March.
They managed to keep things close through 40 minutes on Wednesday before Boston pulled away in the third period of a 6-3 victory at Air Canada Centre.
One area coach Ron Wilson felt need improvement is in his players’ willingness to drive to the net. That could end up making life tougher on Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and potentially draw more penalties.
“It’s going to hurt and it’s going to be ugly, but that’s how we’ve got to try and play the Bruins,” said Wilson.
“We’ve got to get better at getting to the front of the net and making Timmy’s job a little more difficult with screens and deflections,” he added. “He saw a lot of those shots the other night and we want him to have to work and dig in and be a little deeper in his net if we want to be successful.”
The quick road trip will also take the Leafs to Madison Square Garden for a game against the Rangers on Monday, when No. 1 goaltender James Reimer could get his first start since Oct. 22.
Reimer has been cleared of the concussion-like symptoms he’s been suffering since a collision with Habs captain Brian Gionta. Wilson said Reimer would back up Jonas Gustavsson in Boston on Saturday but he’s unlikely to keep his top goaltender out of the crease any longer than that.
“I’m ready to go when he calls on me,” said Reimer.
That might be the best news of all for a Leafs team that managed to keep things together in his absence.
A big reason for that is a surprisingly potent offence led by the line of Lupul, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. In fact, Kessel and Lupul entered play Friday as the top two scorers in the entire NHL.
On Thursday, Lupul was recognized as the league’s third star of November after putting up 19 points in 14 games.
“It’s always nice to be recognized, but a lot of guys have had one good month before so it’s kind of something I’m just taking it in stride,” he said. “I’ve got a good opportunity here and my linemates have played exceptional. I think Bozak’s playing the best hockey of his career for sure—since I’ve been here anyway—and Phil’s played at a high level all year.”
They all need to be sharp for a tough test against a Bruins team in the midst of a stellar 12-0-1 run. One extra piece of motivation should come from all the fathers joining the team on the road.
“You definitely want to play well in front of them and make sure they’re invited back at some point in time,” said Lupul.
Note: Maple Leafs forward Mike Brown had surgery on a bulging disc in his back Thursday and is expected to be out six weeks.