It’s a phrase that coach Randy Carlyle has come back to again and again this season, one he seems to have picked up based on his observations during the mess that was the tail end of last year.
Late last season, with the Toronto Maple Leafs mired in a horrific slump and playing out the string after former coach Ron Wilson was fired, the new bench boss surveyed the situation and didn’t like what he saw in his team’s compete level.
He also wasn’t fond of how other teams came into their building knowing it would be an easy night.
“The one thing that we’ve tried to do – and that’s ownership, management and the coaching staff – is we’re trying to earn the respect back for the ACC,” Carlyle said in response to a question about fighting and intimidation at home. “However we can do that, that’s up to us to find a way so it’s not going to be an easy two points coming into our building.
“When you look at the successful teams in the league, they’ve always had a dominant home record. That’s been a focus of ours. I don’t think we’ve been dominant at home, but we’ve been able to get our compete level up and play the brand of hockey that we have to play to make it difficult to walk out of there with two points.”
Toronto is 12-7-2 at home this season, which is sixth best in the East but obviously a vast improvement from a year ago, when the Leafs won only 18 of 41 games in their building, tying for third last in the league.
It’s difficult to read too much into such a small sample size of home games, but the “hard to play against” mantra is one Carlyle and the players all really believe in and talk about often in the dressing room.
They point to Toronto’s league lead in fights and hits as proof of the shift in philosophy, even if the Leafs had a high hit total (thanks in part to generous stat counters at the ACC) and were middle of the pack in fighting majors a year ago.
“I think up and down our lineup, you know there’s going to be guys that are going to finish all their checks,” Joffrey Lupul said. “I think we’re leading the league in hits, and it looks that way when you watch. Guys like [Nazem] Kadri finish their checks. It’s not necessarily a fun group to play against. I think that’s a big difference between the team this year and last year.
“We’ve added some key guys that know their roles on the team. Guys like [Jay] McClement and [Leo] Komarov. Obviously what McClement has done is great with the penalty killing and defensive play but I think I notice a difference in our team when Komarov’s out there and he’s agitating the other team. He’s one of those guys that you’ve got to know when he’s on the ice.
“Those are just two examples – there are obviously other guys. Mark Fraser, [Frazer] McLaren and guys like that. But I think we’ve done a good job adding those guys that have a certain role and really relish playing in that role and playing it well.”
As for all of the fights, Carlyle insists those aren’t so much part of what he preaches as an offshoot of the team’s style.
“It’s not a trademark of us to go out and fight,” he said. “Our trademark is we want to be a physical hockey club. We want to be a strong fore-checking hockey club. If that leads to physical 1-on-1 confrontation, then that’s the way we deal with it. But we’re not specifically going out there to fight.”
– Speaking of Lupul, he is nearing a return from a concussion, with Carlyle saying he has been cleared for contact. “I feel good,” Lupul said. “I feel pretty confident. We’ll see. I can’t say exactly when I’m going to play here, but he’s right, I am close.”
– Toronto has an incredibly busy week with games Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, starting with the struggling New Jersey Devils at home. They’ve lost nine in a row and 12 of their last 14 games, falling out of the playoff race.
– The Leafs can clinch their first postseason berth in nine years if they win their next two games and get help elsewhere, with the Winnipeg Jets now seven points back in ninth spot. Sportsclubstats.com gives Toronto a 99.94 per cent chance of making the playoffs so they’re pretty safe.
– Who the Leafs will play is a bit more interesting, but if we assume they’ll finish between fourth and seventh (98 per cent chance), we can make some estimates regarding who they’ll face.
Right now, there’s about a 45 per cent chance it’s the Boston Bruins, followed by close to 40 per cent that it’s the Montreal Canadiens, with both matchups in the difficult four versus five spot.
But if Toronto falls to sixth, that would mean playing Washington (11 per cent) or Winnipeg (2 per cent).
It’s pretty unlikely Toronto winds up against anyone else.