Beating Tampa Bay to end a seven-game winless slide had them in such a good mood after practice Thursday that they were practically skipping in delight to the airport bus for their Friday night date with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“If we don’t get a win it kind of just cancels out the game against Tampa,” said Jeff O’Neill, who scored the winner in the 5-4 win over the Lightning. “After dropping so many in a row, we’ve got to get on a streak here and get some victories.”
O’Neill and teammate Bates Battaglia used to play for the Hurricanes, and Leafs coach Paul Maurice coached them in Raleigh, so the three are looking forward to a return to their old stomping grounds.
O’Neill was back last year.
“It was a little nerve wracking,” he recalled. “It was a little uncomfortable walking in there and going to the visiting dressing room.
“The first game was a tough one but the booing took over and you just don’t really care anymore. You just want to win the game.”
Maurice hasn’t coached an NHL game in the Carolinas since he was fired. The Friday encounter comes three years to the day since he was let go.
“I’ve never even seen the visitors’ locker-room in that building so it’ll be interesting, for sure,” he said.
The irony of the Maurice-O’Neill-Battaglia connection is that the two players sometimes found his demands when they all were Hurricanes to be irritating, so they weren’t pals. Now, Maurice is their biggest booster. They sound as if they’ve become the best of chums.
“He’s a little more knowledgeable in certain situations,” O’Neill replies when asked if Maurice has changed. “He’d probably tell you he’s a better coach than he was 10 years ago, but he’s got the same philosophies.
“He’s a pretty fair coach. He expects guys to work as hard as they possibly can and, if you do that, you’re going to get back out there (for another shift). I always tell guys, ‘He’s not yelling at you because he hates you as a person; he’s yelling at you because he thinks you can do better.’ The day he stops yelling at you is the day he probably doesn’t even care anymore.”
This will be Battaglia’s first game in Raleigh since 2003-2004 when he was with Washington. He is co-owner of a Raleigh bar, Lucky B’s, a name he chose because the B graphically resembles the 13 he wore on his Hurricanes sweater.
“More than anything, it’s exciting to get to play against your old teammates and in front of fans you played in front of for so many years,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun experience.”
Maurice gave Jean-Sebastien Aubin a chance to grab the goaltending ball and run with it Tuesday, but Aubin dropped it. Expect to see Andrew Raycroft, who took over in the 21st minute in the come-from-behind win, get the start Friday.
“We’ve got to keep this going,” Raycroft said of the Leafs’ emergence from the slump. “We’ve got a good feeling after the last game so we want to keep that going and go on the road and do the same thing.”
What he saw from his teammates that he liked most Tuesday was their aggressiveness on the attack.
“Getting those rebound goals – those were goals we weren’t getting when things weren’t going great,” said Raycroft. “To be able to put pucks to the net and having guys go there to take advantage of it is a good thing.
“We need to continue to do that. That’s what we were doing when we were winning games at the start of the season.”
Maurice was asked during his scrum with the media if the Leafs contemplated trading a veteran such as Mats Sundin during the slump to shake things up. He grinned. He figured rumours would start flying.
“I’m impressed that it took this long” for a possible trade to be floated, he responded. “I thought that three or four games ago this would start coming out.
“You have about another month and a half before (the time for trade rumours) really heats up. No. I’m not going to beat it to death and say no 50 times. No, Mats isn’t going anywhere.”
Notes: Toronto’s second game in Raleigh will be Jan. 30, which is Maurice’s 40th birthday . . . Toronto is one of five teams stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference with 33 points. Carolina has 34 points . . . Aubin isn’t moping about the two soft first-period goals he allowed Tuesday: “Goals happen,” he said. “The puck didn’t hit me. I felt my positioning was fine. It was just a matter of an angle, or maybe being more aggressive would have helped. But I’m not going to put myself down for that game. There’s a lot of games left and I know I can get hot, and when I get hot I know I can play.” . . . Maurice saw the writing on the wall three years ago. A 2-1 overtime loss in Vancouver was the last straw. “You knew getting on the plane that was your last plane ride” as the Hurricanes’ coach.