TORONTO – Pity the people in charge of keeping the ice in good shape at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility.
Coach Paul Maurice skated his struggling team so hard Wednesday that small snow piles collected all over the chewed-up ice surface.
Having an extra day off between games provided an opportunity for the hard skate, but Monday’s 7-1 loss at home to Washington certainly didn’t give the coach any reason to ease up.
Maurice didn’t say very much to his team Wednesday. The punishing skating drills spoke for themselves.
“On a day like today where it’s a very physically demanding day for the players, there’s not a lot of talking,” he said. “That’s not an easy day for the fittest of athletes so you don’t try to do four or five things all at the same time.
“Today was to get our legs burning and get a conditioning skate in.”
The second-year coach has preached conditioning since taking over the Leafs job but this seemed to be taking that message to another level.
Pucks were used infrequently during the 65-minute practice. The players spent most of the session simply skating hard from one end of the ice to the other in various different ways.
The sight of a Maple Leafs player hunched over his stick, trying to catch his breath, was a common one. No one was smiling until it was over.
“After you do it, you’re happy you did it,” said forward Matt Stajan. “It brings us together – we’re all pushing each other out there to skate. It’s not fun doing it but you’re going to benefit from it.”
That’s the plan, anyway.
The Maple Leafs have been a team in turmoil during the first month of the season. They’re missing four regulars to injury (Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Carlo Colaiacovo) and another to suspension (Mark Bell) and have already been treated to more than their share of boos from the restless home fans. One local paper has also called for the firing of GM John Ferguson.
None of that is a surprise to veteran Jason Blake, who signed as a free agent with the Maple Leafs in the off-season. He expected the team to be better than 5-5-3 at this point.
“We’ve got to play better,” said Blake. “We’re a .500 team right now and we had nine games in October at home. What does that tell you? It’s not very good.”
Toronto plays its next four games on the road starting Friday in New Jersey and Saturday at Montreal. Blake is looking for Wednesday’s hard skate to carry over into those games and start the team moving in a positive direction.
He’s been bothered most by the team’s lack of consistency.
“We want to be a team that’s tough to play against every night,” said Blake. “Not just every third game or every fourth game. We want it to be every single night. That goes back to the consistency factor.
“If you’re going to win in this league, if you’re going to be successful in this league, if you’re going to go far in this league, that starts right there – with consistency.”
Blake says the rival Ottawa Senators are exactly the kind of team Toronto should be trying to emulate.
“I’ve played them 20-something times,” he said. “Every time they’re the toughest team to play against. Every single time.”
The Maple Leafs were given Tuesday off after the embarrassing loss to Washington. Blake says he spent it playing with his kids while Stajan enjoyed a rare chance to sleep in.
Maurice was in the office sorting through the “carnage” of the Capitals game. He might also have taken a few moments to lay out a practice that would physically push his players.
There was at least one Leafs player who wasn’t surprised by the hard workout.
“I’ve done that many times,” said Bates Battaglia, who spent six years in Carolina playing for Maurice. “I’ve seen a few of those drills before.”