Extending the Streak
We'll see if all the words mean anything.
The message from the Maple Leaf camp this morning was that everyone, from players to coaches to training staff to management, has learned from last year's hot start.
The club began last season 4-0, received huge headlines for their team speed and improved depth and started believing it was was a good team. By December, the Leafs were buried in the Eastern Conference standings.
"We probably got carried away," noted head coach Ron Wilson today, referring to last year's start and subsequent tumble.
Tonight will be an indication of whether the team, going with the same lineup that knocked off Calgary on Saturday, really understands that.
The opponent is the Colorado Avalanche, another non-playoff squad from a year ago, and one off to a hot start. The Avs won a wild one in Montreal on Saturday night, 6-5, a game in which the improved goaltending and defensive play that had head coach Joe Sacco so pleased went out the window.
Still, the Avs persevered, winning on Matt Duchene's pretty shootout goal. They may have been a tired team against the Habs, playing in their fourth game in six nights, which means a fifth game in eight nights against the Leafs should, theoretically, give an advantage to the home side.
Colorado has lots of kids everywhere, but particularly up front. This is the kind of game in which a quick, hard start by the Leafs could pay huge dividends, get the crowd going and persuade the Avs they'd accomplished enough on this road trip and could head home to face Chicago on Thursday with heads held high.
That said, the maturity of young Avalanche players like Duchene and No. 2 overall pick Gabriel Landeskog is phenomenal. They won't discourage easily, and the key for Toronto is to get on the Colorado defence which, lead by former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson, is still very much a work in progress. NHL player-of-the-week Phil Kessel will be a huge key to putting pressure on the Avs back end, assuming he stays hot and doesn't veer off into one of his cold streaks.
The youthful Avs ran around a fair bit in Montreal on Saturday, with the tandem of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty in particular causing headaches for the Colorado line of Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Daniel Winnik, all of whom were minus-2 on the night.
From a Leaf point-of-view, keep an eye on Luke Schenn. Handed a big new contract at the start of training camp, Schenn has been only okay so far, and against Calgary found himself with just over 10 minutes of ice time, the least of any Toronto defender including Cody Franson, who was playing his first game after sitting the first two. Let's see how Schenn responds.
If the Leafs in general, meanwhile, are going to demonstrate they have learned the lessons of last year and can actually turn this 3-0 start into a strong two months of play to open the 2011-12, you'll see that focus and intent on the ice tonight.