TORONTO – Dave Nonis stood in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs and ran through the unwelcome consequences that were coming if the team continued on its losing ways.
This was only a couple weeks ago and the atmosphere in the dressing room couldn’t have been any different than it is right now. Tensions were extremely high following a couple embarrassing losses and, according to one confidant, coach Randy Carlyle even feared that his job might be in danger. A few of his players had good reason to wonder if they might be shipped out of town, too.
The team had seemingly hit rock bottom.
Few, if any, would have predicted what was to come next.
The most unusual of Leafs seasons reached a new high point on Saturday night with a come-from-behind 6-3 victory over Ottawa. It was Toronto’s ninth win in 11 games – a hot stretch that is made even more impressive by all of the losing that came before it.
“That’s an 82-game season for you,” veteran winger Joffrey Lupul explained after an emotional evening at Air Canada Centre. “There’s days when your body is not feeling 100 percent, where your confidence is down as a group. It can be frustrating.
“That’s where, especially veteran guys, have to step in and not let things go from bad to worse.”
What is noteworthy about this particularly turnaround is the fact that Nonis felt the need to step in as well. That is not an everyday occurrence around NHL teams. The GM declined to discuss the meeting when approached by Sportsnet earlier this week and none of the Leaf players were willing to speak about it on the record.
However, one point that came across in multiple private conversations is that Nonis’s message was received loud and clear. It was obviously an eye-opener for those in the room.
On the ice and in public view, the lowest moment of this Leafs season came with a 6-1 loss in Carolina on Jan. 9. That dropped the team out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference for the first time all season and marked the 22nd time in 24 games where it failed to register a regulation victory.
At that point, the Leafs had also lost three straight games by a combined score of 18-5 immediately following the Winter Classic.
“We had a bit of a tough stretch there,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “Everyone was kind of skeptical about where this team was going, but we understood that it was all about the response. When you have games like that, there’s not much you can do – it’s not like you can play (them) over again.
“You’ve just got to look forward and that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve been lucky enough to string a few wins together to help our confidence.”
By all accounts, the mood started to change after a 3-2 loss in Washington just 24 hours after the debacle in Carolina. The Leafs put in a much better effort against the Caps – seeing two goals go in off the skates of their own players – and returned home feeling somewhat optimistic despite the string of setbacks.
Essentially, they were backed into a corner. Everyone knew what was at stake if the results didn’t start coming and, lo and behold, the current hot streak started right then and there.
“When you get embarrassed like that a couple times in a row it sucks,” said winger James van Riemsdyk. “Everyone knows what’s going on and it’s just a matter of getting back to basics and getting back to working and doing the things that make you successful.”
There isn’t much mystery as to why the team is currently on a 9-1-1 run.
The top line is scorching hot – Phil Kessel has 23 points in the last 12 games after racking up three goals and an assist against Ottawa – while a number of the secondary players have started scoring as well. The power play also continues to be among the best in the league and goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have delivered solid performances virtually every night.
Suddenly, the team also has a little bit of swagger and doesn’t get discouraged when it finds itself in a hole. Just like in Thursday’s victory over Florida, Toronto trailed Ottawa 2-0 before rallying.
“I thought tonight was one of our best games of the year,” said Bernier.
Added Kessel, who now sits fourth in NHL scoring: “We found a way.”
It really is amazing how drastically a couple victories can change the atmosphere around a team. Carlyle was quick to caution that his group isn’t totally out of the woods – no doubt remembering the 7-1 loss in Dallas last week as much as the recent wins – and he’s dead right with 25 games left on the schedule.
The veteran coach still sees a number of areas that need to be improved upon, particularly in the defensive zone. “The negatives that are out there aren’t front and centre now – when you win,” said Carlyle.
One thing that can’t be denied is that the Leafs have righted what looked to be a sinking ship only a few weeks ago. They are now seven points clear of their playoff pursuers and no one would have thought that was possible in the wake of the humbling loss to the Hurricanes.
“For us, we got embarrassed and we had a choice to make to look in the mirror and just reassess where we were at,” said van Riemsdyk. “We needed to respond.”
Now that they have, this season once again seems to hold some promise.