They play their best hockey just when it seems the most unlikely.
“We’ve really responded after a couple of our down games this season,” said Leafs GM John Ferguson.
Beaten 4-1 on opening night by Ottawa, the Leafs hammered their Ontario rivals 6-0 the next game. Embarassed by the same Senators in a home-and-home series Oct. 26-28, Toronto responded with its best game of the year in a 5-4 shootout win at Montreal last Saturday night.
And this week, following a lacklustre 4-2 loss against lowly Florida, the Leafs probably surprised their owns fans by handing the first-place Buffalo Sabres their first regulation loss of the season, 4-1 at the HSBC Center.
“It didn’t matter if (the game) was in Buffalo or Timbuktu, we needed the win,” said Leafs winger Darcy Tucker, who scored his team-leading 10th goal of the season Saturday night.
“I think we’re not letting each other get too far ahead of each other, whether down or up,” added Tucker. “Guys were pretty down after the Florida game the other night. We just said to ourselves, ‘We gotta come in here, if we play really well we get ourselves back on track.’
“It wasn’t anything special (Saturday) night, really, we just played hard.”
The most impressive part of Toronto’s three big bounce-back wins is who they beat and where they did it.
“I still think that Montreal game might be the most important game of the season,” said Maurice. “Maybe not the most satisfying, but I think we dominated that team on their home ice and got back to a game that we can sell in the locker-room, we said, ‘This is what happens when we do these things right.’ That was a big game for us.”
Now comes an interesting fork in the road for the Leafs. They get two games they should win this week before another rematch with Montreal. First the down-and-out Philadelphia Flyers visit the Air Canada Centre on Monday night before the Leafs take on the struggling Bruins in Boston on Thursday night.
Two wins and suddenly the Leafs are 10-5-3 heading into next Saturday night’s home game with the Habs. Exactly the kind of mental trap Maurice is concerned about.
“The danger is assuming that (the Flyers and Bruins) are worse than Buffalo,” said Maurice. “We said it at the start of the year, we’ll have to scratch and claw to make the playoffs. That’s not a statement about our team, it’s a statement about the league. And that’s why you get those bouts of inconsistency. The league is inconsistent. It’s a fight every night. If you have enough jump and you do enough simple things and get goaltending, you can win.
“Philadelphia and Boston will be as much of a challenge as tonight’s game was. And we have to manufacture that jump.”
Getting his team up for a Flyers team completely out of sorts might be harder on Maurice than Saturday’s game, where the Leafs were determined to show they could skate with the big boys.
“It’s a mistake to think this will be easy because Philadelphia doesn’t have a lot of points,” said Maurice. “Because they’re dangerous and they’re angry. And some of our best games have come after losses.”
Added captain Mats Sundin: “There’s no easy games anymore in this league. This year I think will be the toughest year ever to make the playoffs. There’s a lot of team that look the same, are built the same way, there won’t be an easy game. You look at the rosters for Philadelphia and Boston, they’re pretty good teams even though they’ve struggled.”
Note: The Leafs assigned forward Ben Ondrus to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies on Sunday. Ondrus appeared in four games with the Maple Leafs this season and has one assist and six penalty minutes.