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Phil Kessel on the Maple Leafs’ bench in the second period of their last NHL hockey home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto April 5, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Phil Kessel on the Maple Leafs’ bench in the second period of their last NHL hockey home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto April 5, 2012. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Leafs Beat

Leafs look to put lingering memories to rest Add to ...

The slogans are all painted in Toronto Maple Leafs blue at the top of the dressing room walls, making them hard to miss for players making their way out of the practice facility’s dressing room.

One advises to “Make Today Count.” Another reads: “Mental Durability.”

Then, there’s the slogan that’s not there but which would probably fit right in: “Forget about last season.”

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“Honestly, we don’t think about it at all,” leading-scorer Phil Kessel said of the Leafs’ mid-season implosion a year ago, in which they won just twice in 17 games at one point. “Just so you know.”

“There’s a new GM, there’s a new coach, there’s a new half a team so,” added winger Joffrey Lupul, who’ll likely make his return to the lineup Saturday after 25 games away. “It’s like talking about 1967. No one here was even born.”

The trouble is at least 15 of these Leafs players were in fact on hand for the ugliness of 2011-12, and it only takes something as seemingly insignificant as their current four-game slide (0-3-1) to stir memories in the fan base of just what a mess that year became.

The team’s leaders, however, insist they’re not on a similar path and that some of what head coach Randy Carlyle has brought to the group is more mental toughness.

They also pointed to just how competitive they have been in three of their latest four losses, playing two Eastern Conference powerhouses (Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins) tough enough that one game went to a shootout and the two others were one-goal losses with an empty-netter added in.

Contrast that to last season, when in one 2-13-2 stretch they were outscored 61-35 and had three separate losing skids of four, five and six games in a 36-day span.

“There’s different kinds of losses, right?” Lupul said. “Last year, when we went on the losing skid, it seemed to get worse and worse every night, and we lost our confidence. We weren’t the same team.”

“We were searching [for answers],” forward Clarke MacArthur said. “But we’re a confident team in here. We know we’ve got a good structure and we know what we’ve got to do to win games. There’s going to be a light here at the end of the tunnel and we’re going to flip it around.”

Their first chance comes Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets, a matchup about as big of a mid-season game as there can be.

Winnipeg is on a 9-3-1 roll the past month, which includes a 5-2 beat down of the Leafs last Tuesday, as they have moved into playoff position, just one point back of Toronto with a game in hand.

Toronto hasn’t made the postseason since two lockouts ago (2004); Winnipeg’s last appearance as an NHL city was prior to the original Jets relocation in 1996.

While both cities will be set to explode when and if either team simply qualifies, these are anxious times for Leafs fans, who watched their team blow similar positioning with some 40 per cent of the season remaining only 12 months ago.

“It’s not fun when you’ve got one point out of a possible eight in the last four games, but we’ve played some of our better hockey in two of them,” Carlyle said. “The bottom line is: if we can continue to push for a higher level of play, we’ll be all right as long as we work hard and stay with it.”

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