Life on the road not so bad for Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk (left) celebrates with centre Nazem Kadri (43) after scoring a goal against the Predators during the first period in Nashville on Thursday, March 30, 2017. (Mark Zaleski/AP Photo)
By definition, the Maple Leafs should not be getting a road per diem these days.
When they look around Joe Louis Arena and First Niagara Center for their final two ‘away’ games of 2016-17, the players will think they’re at the Air Canada Centre. More and more of their supporters seem to be coming out — in planes, trains and automobiles, all transferring to one bandwagon as this playoff push gathers steam.
The past few games have seen the highest concentration of Toronto sweaters in years. Yes, spring break always brings the snowbirds and students to Carolina, Tampa Bay and South Florida, but in Nashville on Thursday, every honky tonk on Broadway seemed to have someone with an Auston Matthews jersey and a cowboy hat.
Naturally, a strong contingent made themselves heard at that game when Toronto led most of the way and then clinched a 3-1 win. When a loud racket rolled down the halls of Bridgestone Arena afterwards, curious Nashville media went to investigate and discovered Leafs fans at the bus bay, chanting the name of goalie Frederik Andersen — and when they got a quick glimpse of him, publicity-shy general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Now with Toronto needing a couple of road wins to get into the low 90s in points, somewhere in which the magic number to qualify is waiting to be tapped, the Leafs are headed to their two traditional fan-friendly destinations. Saturday will also be the last Leaf-Wings game at The Joe, site of arguably their biggest playoff win in 40 years, the Game 7 Norris Division semifinal overtime when Nik Borschevsky scored.
Win in regulation and the Leafs would be .500 in their last 22 road games (11-8-3), a blessing for any team with post-season ambition. The trip wraps in Buffalo where the Leafs usually get whomped, but never for lack of well-oiled fans singing O Canada at the start. Despite the last game there unravelling with an Andersen injury, those who’ve made the trek across the Peace Bridge could not recall a louder and more visible presence.
“Leafs fans travel everywhere and every game feels like most of the crowd is Leafs fans,” winger Mitch Marner said. “It’s definitely a nice feeling having them behind you.”
The convoy is getting some bang for its road buck. Throw out the last Buffalo blowout and Toronto has out-scored the opposition 13-3 through Nashville.
“We’re getting a lot of good team chemistry off the ice and hanging with each other,” Marner noted. “I think we just come on the road and we don’t feel any different.”
Friday was a day to rest for coach Mike Babcock’s team, which has now moved within two points of the Ottawa Senators for second place in the Atlantic Division. That would mean home-ice advantage — if the Leafs keep doing well through their final four home games and a possible first-round date with Ottawa regardless of how the second and third seeds end up.
“We look after our part and everything else will look after itself,” Babcock said. “The league is tight, very tight, and it looks like everyone (near you) wins every night. You just have to do your own thing and you give yourself a chance.”
The Leafs swear they aren’t looking around in visiting rinks trying to find the out-of-town scoreboard’s location. Someone usually relays those scores a few minutes after the Leafs are done.
“You get caught thinking about (making playoffs) maybe once or twice, but there is still a lot of hockey left,” Marner added. “We have to make sure we’re ready, especially with the schedule we have (three 100-point Metropolitan clubs, Washington, Columbus and Pittsburgh, are yet to visit the ACC).”
With Andersen showing no troubling effects from a suspected head injury prior to 29 saves against the Preds, optimism is once more prevalent in the dressing room.
“Any time you get good goaltending, you get good opportunity,” Babcock said. “Our guys have done a good job in the neutral zone and we’ve looked after the puck better. That’s not to say (Nashville) didn’t have quality chances, but Freddy was good.”
Auston Matthews, who had his team-leading 36th goal against the Preds, said Andersen is allowing the Leafs to learn the art of the ideal road game.
“He’s been our guy all year, tonight he was a brick wall and made big saves when they had momentum,” Matthews said. “We’re doing a little bit of everything. Our defence is playing tight and as forwards we’re taking care of the puck at (key) points of the game. Especially in the third period, when we’re up by one, you don’t need a dipsy doodle goal, just get the puck in deep and make plays.”
The fans who’ve come on the road, don’t likely care how it’s being done, only that they’re winning again.
BABCOCK REMEMBERS THE JOE
DETROIT — The Maple Leafs realized long ago, they would never see a winning record at Joe Louis Arena.
The curtain comes down on this part of the Toronto-Detroit rivalry Saturday night, after more than 100 regular-season, playoff and exhibition games at The Joe. The Leafs record (excluding the pre-season games) is currently 40-47-5-3, including a 6-5 playoff record, five ties and three regular season overtime/shootout losses.
Players such as Michigan-born Matt Hunwick and Windsor’s Matt Martin have a strong bond with the place, but coach Mike Babcock spent a decade behind Detroit’s bench.
“I loved my time in Detroit, the relationships I have with (GM) Ken Holland and the Ilitch family,” Babcock said. “A lot of good teams and a lot of success. But the Joe, it’s special. Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio (visited often), Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman were no slouches. We had a lot of really good Hall Of Fame players, such as (Dominik) Hasek. I could go on and on.
“It was a great ride and my (three) kids had a place to grow up. All in all, it was lots of fond memories. But I coach the Blue and White now.”