TORONTO – The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs faced a Western Conference opponent, it was Ron Wilson’s final game as coach.
Thanks to the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season that created an all intra-conference schedule, Tuesday’s matchup against the Colorado Avalanche will mark the Leafs’ first game against a team from the West since facing the Chicago Blackhakws on Feb. 29, 2012. And the following two games—Thursday at the Nashville Predators and Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers—make it an all-Western Conference week.
“I think early in the season I don’t think that it is much of an issue because everything is so new,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “I think the Western Conference teams historically have always been a challenge for the Eastern teams, but I think that that is evening itself out as we go.”
Seeing unfamiliar opponents could be more jarring if Toronto wasn’t expected to lean so heavily on two top-six forwards and a starting goaltender who came from the West. And of course there’s the fact that Carlyle coached parts of seven seasons with the Ducks, and he saw Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond plenty.
“Mason Raymond has got world-class speed and world-class skills,” Carlyle said. “I coached a lot of games against the Vancouver Canucks when I was in Anaheim, so I got a little bit maybe of a leg up on some of you guys in watching Mason Raymond and then with David Bolland.”
Carlyle recalled Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville always putting either captain Jonathan Toews or Bolland on the ice against his stars, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Bolland was often counted on in that defensive role in Chicago.
Bolland has shown a bit of an offensive side this season. He already has two goals and an assist in three games with the Leafs.
“I think we had a great team in Chicago there. We had a lot of guys that did their jobs and they did the right things to win,” Bolland said. “Here it could be a different thing with myself, but for myself it’s going to be bringing everything forward. If it’s scoring, it’s scoring, if it’s playing against their top lines and shutting them down, then that’s it.”
How about a little bit of everything? That was the case Saturday as Bolland and Raymond played on a line together, eventually joined by Joffrey Lupul, and dominated against the Ottawa Senators.
That group is expected to start together against the Avalanche, hoping to keep the chemistry going.
“I think they put us two together with Mason, he’s got some great skills and he’s got some great speed going down the wing,” Bolland said. “It’s always crucial to have a guy with speed on your wing.”
Carlyle believes in pairs sticking together more than lines, like Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. He wondered aloud Monday if the Leafs had a new pairing in Bolland and Raymond after they combined with winger Spencer Abbott to be the team’s best line in training camp.
Bolland can’t figure why it has worked out so well. Perhaps competing against each other in the Western Conference helped.
“I played against him a lot in the playoffs,” Raymond said. “He’s one of those guys, he sees the ice so well. He’s a great two-way player. He’s very reliable in his own end. He’s got great offensive instincts. It’s been a joy right here to play with him.”
The soft-spoken Bolland lit up when talking about the “huge battles” he and Raymond had as part of the Blackhawks-Canucks rivalry.
“I think we’ve played pretty hard against each other,” Bolland said. “It’s different in hockey: You go against each other and the next thing you know you’re sitting beside him in the room and you’re best friends, you’re great friends and you’re on a line. … We’ve had some great battles in the past, but it’s time to join in now and battle on some other guys.”
They’re joined in that by goaltender Jonathan Bernier, a 2006 first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings who went 9-3-1 with a 1.88 goals-against average and .922 save percentage last season when facing all Western Conference competition. After shutting out the Senators in relief Saturday, Bernier is expected to start against Colorado.