TORONTO – The sky wasn’t falling Friday for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was still grey, but it wasn’t falling.
Funny what two victories can do for an NHL team teetering on full-fledged disaster. Their GM is still on thin ice and the fans are still disappointed, but the smiles were back on the players’ faces at practice Friday.
The noose has been loosened – just a tad.
“The atmosphere is a lot better when you’re winning,” forward Matt Stajan, who has picked up his play of late, said after practice. “We don’t have to come in here with our heads down and face all the questions that you guys bring to us. It’s a lot easier going. …
“It’s nice to be out of the funk we were in and get some confidence in our room but we still have to keep working.”
And believe it or not, the Leafs were still only five points from a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before games Friday night.
“We have to keep this going, we can’t be satisfied just because we won two games,” said Stajan, a go-to guy for the media when it comes to the pulse of the team. “There’s more than 30 games left and lots of hockey to be played. We have to keep coming with the same attitude and try to try keep getting points and then see what happens.”
The media’s line of questioning Friday had returned to something closer to normalcy. It wasn’t the tense scrutiny that had followed the team home from California after an 0-3 road trip earlier this week. GM John Ferguson could still be gone any day, but that wasn’t the media focus Friday. It was a lighter mood.
Two wins make that much of a difference?
“You don’t feel like you’re back to even, there’s still a real concern around here for where we’re at,” said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. “But it allows you to have a shootout at the end of practice and guys can make some jokes while it’s happening. Maybe that’s the difference. …
“You don’t have to go through the fencing after practice.”
It was a welcome respite from the week’s heated media coverage.
“The attention to our team is a good thing, it’s not a bad thing,” insisted Maurice. “I know that it’s frustrating sometimes, but the reason we’re all here and you’re all here is that there’s such a huge interest in our hockey team. There’s such passion from our fans. It spawns all the coverage.
“We’re not looking to have that go away. We’d just like to turn that into more of a positive attention. But we have to earn that, we have to deliver that.”
The players weren’t just grilled at the rink, either. They have friends who read the newspapers and those friends were dying to know what the heck was going on.
“They ask me questions and I’m like, ‘Guys, I can’t answer anything, I’m not in charge of that,”‘ winger Alexei Ponikarovsky said with a laugh. “Everything that’s being said or reported, I don’t even know if it’s true or not. You can’t rely on anything.”
Stajan, for one, can’t escape it when things get crazy in Leaf Land. He’s playing NHL hockey where he grew up. The Mississauga native has family and friends all over the Toronto region. It’s been the kind of week where they really get interested in what’s going on.
“With having family and friends here, you hear a lot more and they’re asking questions,” said Stajan. “But my family is great with it. And you know what, I love playing here because people care. When the buzz around town is always about your team, you’re going to get that. And when times are tough like they have been, it’s not as much fun. But winning solves everything.
“We got got to enjoy these two wins and keep it going tomorrow night.”
The heat will be turned right back on with a loss at home to Buffalo on Saturday night. The Sabres have their own problems, carrying a 10-game winless streak (0-5-5) into Friday night’s home game with Atlanta. Maurice will be able to compare notes with 2006 Jack Adams Award winner Lindy Ruff, the Sabres coach also feeling the heat in Buffalo because of the slump.
“This is a tough league and there are good coaches at the bottom end of the standings,” Maurice said when asked about Ruff. “The two guys in the basement in our league have Stanley Cup rings (John Tortorella in Tampa and Marc Crawford in Los Angeles).”