TORONTO – Tyler Bozak hardly practised, Phil Kessel didn’t speak and Nazem Kadri crashed the net, literally.
The playoffs haven’t even started yet, but already there is no shortage of storylines surrounding Maple Leafs.
Toronto (26-17-5) makes its long-awaited return to the post-season on Wednesday in Boston with coach Randy Carlyle declaring the fifth-seeded Leafs the underdog against the fourth-seeded Bruins.
General manager Dave Nonis, who called the Bruins well-managed, well-coached and incredibly deep, agreed that Boston (28-14-6) enters the series as favourite.
“I don’t think that that means anything,” he added. “You can term a team the underdog but you have to play the games.”
While both men talked up Boston’s qualities, they also like their chances.
Carlyle was more concerned about his team than the Bruins, saying the Leafs have to get back to playing their style of hockey—skating, forechecking, getting out of the defensive zone and relying on their special teams.
Do that and the Leafs are hard to beat.
“We feel we can go into any building and have a chance for success,” said Carlyle. “And I don’t know if you could say that before.”
Added goalie James Reimer: “We know that if we do everything right, then we have a good chance against them.”
Not all the pieces may be in place, however.
On the ice, Bozak was the first out of the dressing room at the Leafs’ training centre Monday morning.
Bozak has missed the last two games with an upper body injury—observers point to a possible shoulder injury in last Wednesday’s game against Tampa Bay. The Leafs first-line centre skated alone before his teammates came out and gingerly tried some shots. He left some 10 minutes into the team practice.
Carlyle called him day-to-day. Nonis hoped for the best.
“It’s our expectation that he’s going to be ready for Wednesday,” said the GM.
There were some anxious moments when Kadri, who has taken Bozak’s place on the top line, went flying into the goal on a drill. The net came off its mooring and Kadri grimaced as he got up and awaiting his turn in the drill. He continued practising although he paused briefly to have a trainer slap a bandage near his hip.
Kessel kept some three dozen reporters waiting for 20-plus minutes after practice before one of the team’s public relations officials said the winger had declined to speak.
Nonis, who met the media minutes later, said he was unaware of Kessel’s reluctance to talk.
“We’ll deal with that internally,” he said. “Our players will be available on a going forward basis.”
A former Bruin obtained in a high-profile trade, Kessel has been quizzed repeatedly about Boston and his struggle to excel against them. The Bruins have put hulking defenceman Zdeno Chara on the ice whenever Kessel jumps over the boards—to great effect.
Toronto winger Joffrey Lupul said it’s wrong to focus just on Kessel when it comes to the Leafs’ matchup with the Bruins.
“At the end of the day, he’s just one piece of our team,” said Lupul. “He’s going to get a lot of the attention from fans and media and probably even their team, but it’s not a one-man team.
“If they’re really concentrating on taking Phil out of the game, other guys have to step up. It’s not fair to rely on one guy or put the pressure on him.”
Still there are always expectations on Kessel.
Carlyle and the Leafs expect a fired up crowd to greet them at Boston’s TD Garden.
“Great fans,” said Lupul, comparing them to the fervent supporters in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. “They kind of go above ordinary as far as making it uncomfortable on the opposition, whether it’s signs and some of the comments you get, those fans truly go the next level. They don’t want you to be comfortable in Boston.
“And that’s good, that’s part of it, that’s what makes hockey fun.”
Carlyle harkened back to playing at the old Boston Garden against the likes of Terry O’Reilly, Stan Jonathan, Al Secord, Rick Middleton and Jean Ratelle.
“A difficult building to go into,” he recalled. “Boston has maintained that reputation as a tough town. And the Bruins have probably been a leader in posting that fabric for their community. Boston tough.”
The city’s pride and resiliency have hit new heights in the wake of the recent terrorist bombings.
On the ice, Boston has held the upper hand recently against Toronto.
The Bruins won all six meetings against Toronto last season, outscoring the Leafs 36-10. The one-sided series included 7-0 and 8-0 defeats.
Caryle was behind the bench for that 8-0 humiliation.
“That was part of us recognizing as a coaching staff and management that things had to change for our group,” Caryle said. “That we couldn’t afford to be embarrassed to that level. And it was an eye-opener to us.”
Boston won three of four against Toronto this year but the games were more evenly contested.
“We were competitive in every game,” said Nonis.
The Leafs’ 3-2 victory on March 23 in Toronto snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Bruins back to the 2010-11 season.
An animated Carlyle put the Leafs through a high-energy practice Monday, splitting the team into two squads at one point. Each group snaked around the ice, as if competing in a mass short-track speedskating race.
There was a humorous moment after practice when Carlyle approached the waiting media pack and then found he had to step up on a precariously high platform provided to help him stand out above crowd.
“Think you could have got a taller one?” he said sarcastically as he climbed the platform.
Note: EA Sports predicts the Leafs will lose to the Bruins in seven games. The video game giant’s simulation has the New York Rangers defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in six games to win the Stanley Cup.