Maple Leafs win won't stop trade winds blowing
Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk scores in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre. (Dave Thomas/Toronto Sun)
A pity if the Maple Leafs really are getting their heads back together, when so many of them expect to be lopped off and out the team picture.
Saturday’s spirited 4-3 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets, following signs of life during five one-goal losses, could quickly become a footnote. Many players, led by UFA winger Daniel Winnik, centre Tyler Bozak, defenceman Roman Polak and perhaps goaltender Jonathan Bernier could be gone this time next week with the March 2 NHL trade deadline quickly approaching.
If Toronto was to win the next three matches prior to the deadline, it might only speed the renovation process up, perhaps including big tickets Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
But interim head coach Peter Horachek and his staff must work in the ‘here and now’ with the tools at hand. And the circumstances of Saturday’s win, just the fifth in 29 games and third in 30 when trailing after two periods, will at least make the next three days of practice a bit more upbeat.
“That’s a really important point,” Horachek said after the game. “This was our sixth one-goal game in a row and when you get into situations down by a goal in the third, you want to see a response that kick starts you. We haven’t had that for a while. It was positive that we stuck to it and got the win.
“We were the ones who’d played back-to-back, we came home (from Carolina) a little late. But we responded the way we wanted, knowing the Jets are a physical team. We didn’t fold the tent, we played strong. We made mistakes (some horrible ones around the Leaf net by young defencemen) and we corrected them quickly.”
No doubt those hoping the Leafs drop all 22 remaining games for better draft positioning grumbled when James van Riemsdyk’s strike ended the game. But the Air Canada Centre crowd went home happy for one of the few times since mid-December. The players have maintained that the five one-goal losses, an unofficial club record because one was by shootout, meant they were doing something right that didn’t show in the standings.
“We played with a lot of emotion and passion tonight,” centre said Nazem Kadri said. “Most nights we’re doing the same thing, just not getting the results.
“I still think we have a pretty good roster and a lot of talent. It seems we work hard for 55 minutes and then a couple of plays here and there end up in the back of our net and we’re chasing from behind. We’re in one-goal games, but we shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties or costly turnovers.”
The Leafs heaped plenty of praise on Winnik after Saturday’s Gordie Howe hat trick, though it inadvertently will help spur his trade to a playoff contender.
“He’s our best penalty killer, he can play on a third line, a first line, left wing, right wing,” recited Horachek. “Whenever things need to be changed around, whatever position you want him to do, even take faceoffs. Tonight he got into a little tussle (with Jets’ Ben Chiarot) and I think that’s necessary, too, to step up at important times.”
Winnik and Kadri have proven a strong tandem, moreso when a healthy Joffrey Lupul can join in.
“I’m not the most skilled guy out there and Naz isn’t the fastest, grittiest guy,” conceded Winnik. “But I go get pucks for him and he makes plays. And he knows if things aren’t going well to just lay it in my corner and I’ll go get it.”
Kadri says they’ll only get better with time, but that’s something the Leafs don’t have.
Though Saturday’s scouting presence at the Air Canada Centre was dramatically reduced from Tuesday, when half the NHL, including the whole Montreal Canadiens hierarchy watched the Leafs and Panthers, next weekend and Monday will still be very busy.