Randy Carlyle’s bark was louder than usual as the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs put the team through its paces one last time at practice on Tuesday on the eve of the team’s foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And when an errant pass by Dion Phaneuf clipped the coach on his foot during one of the drills, Carlyle shot the captain a death stare that would have staggered mere mortals.
The postseason is at hand and Carlyle, admittedly edgy at the best of time, is already getting his game face on.
“Short-term memory,” Carlyle quipped when asked after the workout at MasterCard Centre why players at this time of year still need constant reminders on what is expected from them on the ice.
When the Leafs take the ice Wednesday night against Boston to begin their best-of-seven Eastern Conference opening-round series, it will mark Toronto’s first playoff game in nine years.
If the Leafs forget to practise the good habits they delivered for the most part over the course of the season – constant hustle and solid defensive play in their own end – their postseason foray will be a short one.
Carlyle is certain his team is ready to deliver.
“Obviously we’ve had some peaks, we’ve had some valleys,” Carlyle said in describing Toronto’s 26-17-5 regular season. “And this is another test for our group.
“What we’ve tried to do, we’ve tried to meet every test that we’ve been presented with head on. We’re not skirting any of the issues that have come our way. We’re going to deal with what comes our way and that’s the Boston Bruins. And we’re not going to sit back.”
The big uncertainty for the Leafs heading in what to expect from Phil Kessel, the team’s leading scorer (20 goals, 32 assists in 48 games), who has been a bust in games against his former team.
The Leafs probably cannot win if the winger is not delivering offensively.
Over the course of four seasons and 22 games against his former team, Kessel has scored just three times and has a plus-minus rating of minus-22.
A large part of Kessel’s containment is credited to Zdeno Chara, the elongated (6 foot 9) Boston defenceman who will likely once again to be shadowing the Toronto skater every time he is on the ice.
An interesting stat that was unearthed by leafsnation.com showed that Chara matched up against Kessel for 32 minutes, 36 seconds this season during four regular-season games against the Leafs, the most of any NHL opponent.
Boston won three of those games.
The notoriously reticent Toronto winger, who took plenty of heat after he skipped out on members of the media who wanted to get his views on the upcoming playoff matchup on Monday, decided to take some questions after practice on Tuesday.
“I didn’t think it was that big a deal,” Kessel said about Monday’s disappearing act. “You guys don’t want to talk to me that much during the year, and you need me yesterday?
“I think you guys made a bigger deal about it than it is.”
All the Leafs are concerned about is that Kessel doesn’t disappear against Boston.
“He’s just a big guy, he moves well for a big guy,” Kessel responded when asked what makes playing against Chara so difficult. “No wonder he’s won so many Norris Trophies, he’s one of the best.”
For the record, Chara has won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s premier defender just once, in 2009.
“I think you just have to be as simple as you possibly can going up against a big body like Chara,” Carlyle offered.
“The reach and the range and the physical size of the individual plays into it. He uses his stick very effectively.”
The Leafs got some good news on Tuesday with centre Tyler Bozak, who missed the last two games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, taking part in full practice.
He was skating hard on the top line along with James van Riemskyk and Kessel and Carlyle said he expects Bozak will be playing on Wednesday.
Joffrey Lupul was working with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin while Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin teamed up as another unit.
The fourth line featured Colton Orr with Jay McClement and Leo Komarov.
Come Wednesday night, however, Carlyle said all that could change.
“We’re going to try to see if we can spread out the offence a little more evenly,” the coach said. “Who’s to say those groups are going to play together [Wednesday night].
“We have the flexibility, we’ve done that all year, of keeping two guys together and then moving the third part around as we see fit.”