Speculation swirls around the future of Ron Wilson, but it didn't stop the Toronto Maple Leafs coach from putting his team through an intense, even nasty, practice on Friday.
The workout at the Montreal Canadiens suburban practice facility featured spirited one-on-one battles and some solid hitting as Wilson tried to shake the Leafs out of a slump that has seen them go 1-9-1 in their last 11 games.
”If you're practising defensive zone coverage and want to do it seriously, you have to finish checks and bump into people and do things that aren't necessarily that fun at practice,” said forward Joffrey Lupul.
The Leafs are coming off a 5-4 loss in Chicago that left them winless in their last six games.
They hope to end that string with a win Saturday night at the Bell Centre against the rival Canadiens. The teams have split their four meetings this season, with Montreal taking the last one 5-0 in Toronto on Feb.11.
Wilson pegged Jonas Gustavsson to start a second game in a row, but wants better protection for his goaltender through tighter, tougher defence. Not the porous coverage that saw the Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa light it up in Chicago.
The workout featured five-on-five cycling sequences and other drills simulating game situations. The players skated hard, a few hits were thrown, but all kept their tempers in check.
In their last 11 games, the Leafs allowed 45 goals, an average of more than four per game. It cannot all be pinned on Gustafsson and the sometimes shaky goaltender James Reimer, who is 1-6-0 during the slump.
”Our defence has to do a better job of pinning,” said Wilson. ”We've got to be more aggressive and staple people better.
”It was good that they had a little competition against each other.”
As the Leafs fell 4-2 at home to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, fans chanted ”Fire Wilson!” Debate on the fourth-year coach's future with the club has heated to the point that some feel a firing could come at any time if the Leafs keep losing and falling further behind the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff position.
”The talk in town doesn't really matter,” said Wilson. ”We've got a job to do.
”We've got to try to rectify some things and get points on the board. That's where the focus is.”
Lupul said the players can't blame the coach or any teammates for their woes.
”There's a lot that goes along with being on a losing streak,” he said. ”It's not fun for anyone — the coach, the goalies or the fans.
”This is the time when it's easy to start pointing fingers and blaming people. That's something we've talked about that we don't want to do. It's a team game and we have to find a way to all get on the same page and get one win. If we do that, we'll get our confidence back.”
To that end, the Leafs used an off-day Thursday on a team dinner paid by centre Mikhail Grabovsky at an Italian restaurant that was a favourite when he played in Montreal.
”You look at the standings and we're falling,” added Lupul. ”We need to win a game and get some guys to loosen up a bit.
”Once we can get that, there's nothing to say we can't win four or five in a row and get right back in this thing.”
The Leafs have 18 games to play, which is plenty of time to put a streak together to avoid missing the playoffs for a seventh straight season. They have not played in the post-season since the 2004-05 lockout year.
General manager Brian Burke kept his team intact at Monday's trade deadline, believing it can win. They have since lost two in a row.
A bad omen is that their recent slide has left them with exactly the same number of points (65) as they had on the same date a year ago, when they ended up finishing eight points out of the playoffs despite a late spurt of wins.
They expected more this season, particularly after a strong first half.
”We had a real good chance of being a top-four team in the East at the all-star break and now we're looking at having to put together a bunch of wins to get in the playoffs,“ said Lupul. ”That's frustrating.”
Defenceman John-Michael Liles said there is no reason to panic.
”When you lose, that's when speculation comes in,” he said. ”It's been a tough two or three weeks with the trade deadline and losing the last few games, but you can't let two or three weeks determine your season.
”We have to put together a good stretch and get back in the hunt. This practice was a good thing. We had to focus on some things, getting our ‘compete' level back up. Hopefully, it translates into our game.”