WASHINGTON — Whether it’s the Air Canada Centre environment or the team bonding that is done on the road, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an interesting Jekyll and Hyde thing going on 10 games into the shortened season.
A 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals Tuesday night improved Toronto’s record to 4-1 on the road. This happened 24 hours after a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at home to drop the Leafs’ record at the ACC to 1-4.
The team’s record through five games on the road is the best start away from Toronto since the 1998-99 season. That is also the year the Leafs moved into the Air Canada Centre, where the atmosphere has gotten progressively quiet over the years as the crowd has become increasingly corporate. Having no playoff hockey since 2004 will surely play a role in any tempered enthusiasm, but it still doesn’t explain why the team has managed to find the right recipe for success in what is commonly referred to as “unfriendly territory.”
“Yeah we’re gonna have to figure that out,” said forward James van Riemsdyk, who scored two goals Tuesday night. “Obviously as the season goes on you have to win those home games, that’s what all playoff teams do.”
Van Riemsdyk vaulted over Matt Frattin for the team lead in goals with his fifth and sixth of the season. He has filled in well beside Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel as part of the Leafs’ primary scoring trio.
A big part of his success has stemmed from his willingness to drive the net. The average distance from the net of van Riemsdyk’s goals this season is 15.3 feet.
“The key is getting the opportunity to play in those key roles,” van Riemsdyk said about his recent stretch of games. “In the past when I’ve played in those roles I’ve been able to put up points and I’m excited that I’m consistently getting that opportunity.”
Leafs defenceman Korbinian Holzer scored what would end up being the eventual game-winner and more importantly, his first NHL goal.
“It was a great feeling,” Holzer said. “I didn’t really see the puck go in; I saw the light went on behind the net. I knew someone tipped it but wasn’t sure whom. When everyone told me it was mine it was a special feeling.”
To give you an idea of how tough a road it has been for Holzer, I recall the Leafs’ first extended road trip last season. They were in Anaheim and Holzer had been called up to fill in as the seventh defenceman. An injury to a Leafs defenceman appeared to open the door for Holzer to make his season debut, but instead they shipped Keith Aulie from St. John’s, Nfld., where the Marlies played the night before, to Anaheim, Calif., where he played in place of Holzer, who was sent back to the Marlies.
The window seemed impossibly small, but Aulie traveled over 7200 km and played two games in the span of just over 30 hours. Holzer never did end up playing last season despite his call-ups, which must have been especially hard to take.
But now the Leafs are giving their youth a chance. It would have been easy for Randy Carlyle to pull Holzer out of the lineup after a poor performance the previous game. But what would Holzer have learned from that?
A lot has changed for this team since last season. Holzer is getting his opportunity to learn as are the other Marlies graduates. Ben Scrivens did his part in the third period by coming up with some tremendous saves to protect the one-goal lead. There are still several flaws with this team. Figuring out how to win on home ice is a good first step.