Ron Wilson is looking forward to almost a week’s worth of team-building for the Toronto Maple Leafs with the assistance of the Canadian military, thanks to a quirk in the NHL schedule.
The military might be just what the Leafs head coach needs, as his team may be 2-0 after wins over the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators but it needs stronger legs after a wobbly final 10 minutes almost cost the Leafs a win against the Sens on Saturday. They could also use a little help in storming the beach at the start of their campaigns, as the Leafs started slowly in both games.
“I think our guys will get as much out of this as the military,” Wilson said. “Our players are excited about some of the activities we have planned.”
Wilson, in true military fashion, clammed up when he was asked just what sort of activities he and the soldiers had in mind, although he resisted saying the information could only be dispensed on a need-to-know basis.
The plan was for the Leafs to take Sunday off and then head for the Canadian military base in Trenton, Ont., on Monday morning for three days of training with the Canadian armed forces when they are not on the ice at a local arena. This diversion in a week-long break in the NHL schedule (the Leafs do not play again until Saturday against the Calgary Flames) is the latest step in the Leafs’ connection with the Canadian armed forces.
At every Leafs home game, a member of the military is recognized publicly as part of a campaign with Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn known as Luke’s Troops. Last July, Leafs general manager Brian Burke went to Kandahar, Afghanistan, even though it was the opening day of the NHL free-agent market because he wanted to salute the Canadian troops at the end of their mission.
Two games into the season is far too early to make judgments but chances are Wilson will spend a considerable amount of time on the Leafs’ special teams this week. Their history in this area in recent years is not good and the early results this season are mixed.
After two games, the Leafs killed off 11 of 13 opposition power plays, a success rate of 84.6 per cent that is much better than last season’s 77.4-per-cent mark, which was 28th in the league. They also scored a shorthanded goal against the Canadiens.
The addition of faceoff specialist Dave Steckel and a full season with goaltender James Reimer are a big help. If the Leafs can maintain that 84.6 standard, it should put them in the NHL’s top 10.
The power play is a different matter. After two games it has two goals in 13 opportunities, a 15.4-per-cent rate that is lower than their mediocre 16 per cent last season and they have surrendered a shorthanded goal.
One area where the soldiers may take a lesson or two from the Leafs is in striking a target. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf had everyone talking Saturday after he lowered his shoulder into the upper chest of Senators forward Stéphane Da Costa, who made the mistake of skating through the middle with his head down.
Given the suspensions handed out in the preseason by NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan for hits to the head, many were wondering if Phaneuf’s hit would rate a look. But even Senators head coach Paul MacLean agreed with the majority view, that it was a hard, clean hit.
“You’re allowed to body check,” MacLean said. “You have to accept a certain amount of risk. I know I’d never come across [the middle]like that.”
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Tampa Bay at Washington
The Lightning stopped the Capitals’ playoff express cold in the second round last spring with a sweep. Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps need to start fast this season to quell any unrest among their fans. Monday, 7 p.m., TSN2.
Washington at Pittsburgh
You’ll need a Centre Ice package or head to a sports bar to catch it but the week doesn’t get any easier for the Capitals. Maybe Tomas Vokoun will have wrestled the No. 1 goalie’s job back from Michal Neuvirth by now. Thursday, 7 p.m., NHL Network (U.S. only).
Vancouver at Detroit
If ever a team can find itself under the gun quickly it’s the Canucks thanks to their jittery fans and their jittery goaltender. Once again, Roberto Luongo found himself explaining away another bad outing last week when he let the Penguins score a few easy ones. Beating the Red Wings will make a lot of that go away – for now. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Sportsnet-Vancouver.
Winnipeg at Chicago
The NHL schedule maker decided to reintroduce the Jets to the NHL slowly, as this is just their second game of the season. Even though it’s the Blackhawks, this is just a tuneup for Jets fans, as their next game is the big one. Thursday, 8:30 p.m., TSN.
Winnipeg at Phoenix
The new Jets against the old Jets (who moved to Phoenix in 1996) is such a big game, Hockey Night in Canada made sure it’s the main event nationally. Even Leafs fans will be checking this one out. Saturday, 7 p.m., CBC
All times Eastern
Two generations of Toronto Maple Leafs share their three favourite television shows.
Ron Wilson, 56.
Leafs player 1977-1980.
Head coach 2008-present.
Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Luke Schenn, 21.
Leafs player 2008-present.
NFL football (any network).