Siegel: Leafs finding uncommon early success on home ice

Jonas Siegel
11/21/2013 1:39:46 AM
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TORONTO – It's been more than a decade since the Leafs last held an elite home record.

“That was one of the goals we wanted to create is when teams come into this building there's no more of this two points, kiss your relatives and go home,” said Randy Carlyle following a fifth straight victory at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night. “It's enough of that.”

The win, also the seventh in the past eight games at home, improved the Leafs record in Toronto to an impressive 8-2-0, right there amongst the very best in the Eastern Conference.

Success of that kind has generally eluded the club in recent years.

Since holding the top home mark in the conference in 2001-2002, the Leafs have become a mediocre bunch on home ice. Last season, Carlyle's first full campaign behind the bench, they finished with the eighth best record in the conference, their best finish since the 05-06 season when they held the sixth best mark.

Home ice has rarely resembled a place of refuge for the Leafs in the past decade or so.


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In winning eight of their first 10 at home, the Leafs have benefited from a potent offensive attack; outscoring opponents 35-23, including 18-7 during the most recent five-game win streak.

They've generated more than a goal per game more at the ACC than on the road – 3.5 per game vs. 2.27 – helped considerably in that regard by the league's no. 1 ranked home power-play (32.4%).

The strongest foundation of the club so far, terrific goaltending from both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier – combined .933 save percentage – has shown up both at home and on the road.

Never a bad thing to start with the lead, the Leafs have also scored first in seven of those first 10 home games.

“I don't think you can be a successful hockey club without having a strong home record,” said Carlyle, his team hosting the Predators on Thursday night. “That brings that respect back to your community and your fan base.”

The Leafs dip on home ice post-lockout (03-04) was unquestionably tied to the club's general struggles, the quality of those teams a major part of the equation. But as Carlyle wryly noted (Ron Wilson previously opined with a similar belief), there is a sense that opposing teams, stocked with talent from the GTA, visit Toronto with extra motivation, the influx of family and friends on hand for the occasion inflaming that drive.

Unlikely to help matters either is the tepid intensity of the local crowd.

Among the tamer environments league-wide – save for the playoffs last May – the ACC generally does not provide much in the way of fan-engineered enthusiasm – again, lacking team success certainly factors in once more. The playoffs last May were a rare exception.

“Typically it's a quiet building,” said Joffrey Lupul, who has five goals and nine points at home this season. “And then to hear it change like that in the playoffs was pretty cool for us. It gives you that added motivation to play well at home and hopefully we can try and get the building back somewhere like that.”

Looking around at some of the more raucous environments around the league, sensing the energy they provide to their respective teams, Lupul can't help but desire something similar for Toronto.

“Chicago, Philly, Pittsburgh, New York, Montreal, Calgary,” said the 30-year-old with a laugh, listing those buildings whose atmosphere he'd like to replicate at the ACC, “pretty much anywhere, Ottawa.”

“Saturday night, it's usually a pretty good atmosphere in the building, fans are there, but for the most part we say a lot of times create your own energy in the building. That's just the way it is. It's mostly a corporate crowd I believe.”

Given the club's early trend of lackluster starts, it's been a process to create that energy.

The Leafs have often stuttered out of the gate at home (and on the road) before finding a proper track to two points (13-7-1 overall). In one of their better victories of the year on Oct. 22, they mustered a season-low two shots in the opening 20 minutes against Jonas Hiller and the Ducks before emerging with some of their finest hockey over the final two periods in a 4-2 win.

“You want to get the fans involved in the game and the way to do that is not to be stuck in your own end for 10 minutes in the first period,” Lupul said with a chuckle or two, “and then you get them in the game, but it's because they're booing.”

“We want to start well at home and try and get the fans in the game because whether people believe it or not you feed off the energy of the crowd a lot at home. I think we did it a lot last season at the end and in the playoffs and again, hopefully we can get it back to that level.”

Part of Carlyle's mandate when he replaced Ron Wilson in March 2012 was to re-establish home ice as a haven for success. The Leafs coach pointed right to wins and losses when asked what aspect of the culture he wanted to change – “Well our record for sure”.

“We have to have success in our building,” he said. “It's imperative. Simple as that. If you're going to be a hockey club that is going to qualify [for the playoffs] and give yourself a chance you have to have a home record that you can be proud of.”

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