SPORTS

Maple Leafs go on Western Conference road trip brimming with confidence

11/03/2014 11:23 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The home locker-room at Air Canada Centre stayed closed for a few extra minutes on the night of Oct. 25. The Toronto Maple Leafs needed to clear the air after a demoralizing 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins.

"Basically, we had an agreement that that was enough," coach Randy Carlyle said. "Enough was enough. Because we couldn't continue to go the way we were going, and our performance against Boston was one where in our minds and in their minds was unacceptable."

Since that unacceptable performance, the Leafs are 3-0-0 with victories over the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks. The wins have moved them from 14th to seventh in the 16-team Eastern Conference.

Along the way, the morale gradually improved. Taking care of business against lowly Buffalo led to what centre Nazem Kadri called "a complete 180" after some tension amid the losing.

Goaltender James Reimer, who on Saturday night became the first goaltender since 2008 with 25-plus saves and no goals allowed in a third period, didn't like how things were going.

"I think it's one of those things where we weren't all pulling on the same rope, for lack of a better word," Reimer said. "We weren't on the same page."

Victories against stronger competition had the Leafs feeling pretty good about themselves going into this week's Western Conference road trip.

"We knew what we were doing was unacceptable and we needed to get back to playing Toronto Maple Leaf hockey," said centre Peter Holland, who has a bigger role in the absence of injured forward Joffrey Lupul. "When we play our brand of hockey we're a good team, we're tough to beat."

The Leafs' brand of hockey will get tested on the road, even if it's not against the best of the West. They visit the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday and the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday before returning home to face the New York Rangers on Saturday.

"Our hockey club has played pretty good on the road," Carlyle said, referencing the Leafs' 3-0-1 road record. "You have to win on the road to climb in the standings."

It could help the Leafs that they have some Western influence on the roster, including forwards Peter Holland (Anaheim Ducks), Daniel Winnik (Ducks and Coyotes) and Mike Santorelli (Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators) and defencemen Stephane Robidas (Ducks and Dallas Stars) and Roman Polak (St. Louis Blues). Even new assistant coach Peter Horachek had been in Nashville before a stop with the Florida Panthers.

"That certainly will help having Roman and Danny Winnik, myself, who have been in the Western Conference a lot," Horachek said last week. "Randy's been out there before, he came out there and (has an) understanding of some of the way teams play and some of the characteristics of some of the players. ... Any time you can have familiarity, I think it helps, for sure."

It also doesn't hurt to have some momentum. Reimer said the team's confidence is in a good place right now, something Carlyle credited the players for.

Captain Dion Phaneuf just sees it as the machinations of a season that are magnified in Toronto.

"There's lots of ups and downs," Phaneuf said. "Believe me, when you're in a market like this, you can feel the ups and the downs. ...

"But I think that we did a good job of sticking with it and turning it around because we weren't feeling very good about ourselves about five, six days ago. We beared down, we talked about (how) we expected more out of each other and we expected more out of our team and we've shown that."

Note — Before leaving for Phoenix, the Leafs recalled centre Sam Carrick and defenceman Stuart Percy from the AHL's Marlies. Carrick, who made his NHL debut Saturday night and then was sent down for salary-cap reasons, is expected to remain in the lineup as the fourth-line centre. Percy will most likely serve as the seventh defenceman on the trip.

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