Toronto Star


Joffrey Lupul and the Leafs return from Christmas break to face Panthers (5 p.m., Sportsnet, live blog at Rosie DiManno sets the sweaty scene in Sunrise,

- Rosie DiManno In Sunrise, Fla.

Well here’s an odd sight: Dion Phaneuf in his black travelling suit, flashing purple argyle socks that match his dress shirt, sitting on a chair in the middle of a huge vacant parking lot.

The Leaf captain taps his watch — no doubt the luxury designer model which he endorses in billboard advertisem­ents and glossy magazines. “Where’s that bus?” In the background, David Clarkson is sweating up a storm doing squats on the concrete in muggy weather. Nearby David Booth jogs on the spot.

Not all the Leafs were rounded up when the team reconvened in Toronto Saturday morning for their charter flight to Florida, following a three-day Christmas break. Some — these three — never came back to Toronto at all after their 4-0 blanking of the Stars in Dallas last Tuesday.

Phaneuf lammed it directly to Florida, where his family gathered for the holiday at his grandfathe­r’s winter residence. Clarkson met up with his wife and two small children at a hotel near Fort Lauderdale. And Booth more or less came back to the ’hood, as a former Panther, the rather hot club — four wins in their past six games, eight out of 13, in the thick of the playoff race and no longer a patsy opponent (not that Toronto fares so good against patsies) — which is hosting the Leafs in Sunday’s late matinee match.

Meanwhile, Joffrey Lupul had lit out for California, though returned to the bosom of the club before it departed Toronto. Seems hardly worth the mad scramble.

But days off are precious and three, verging on four, days of downtime in a row unheard of except in the league-mandated Noel mini-holiday.

The team bus, an hour late, finally emerges from the tunnel that runs alongside the BB&T Center. Players disembark and straggle into the arena.

What followed — entirely expected — was a 90-minute hard-slog practice that included lots of whiteboard instructio­n from the coaching staff.

Practice availabili­ty will be scant in the forthcomin­g week, as the Leafs grind through a schedule of five games in seven nights, including a brace of back-to-backs. There will be no basking by the pool in the Sunshine State — Tampa on Monday — before the team heads north for a New Year’s Eve date in Boston, then a zigzag flight pattern from Minnesota to Winnipeg, a lengthy road trip imposed on the club by the world junior tournament back home.

Half hour into the practice and the players are breathing hard, jaws hanging open. Muscles begin to cramp. “Ouch, ouch,” complains Phaneuf.

Phil Kessel leans on his stick, utterly gassed. But he’s not an all-out, bust-your-behind practice kind of guy anyway. Afterwards, crossing the corridor in his sweat-soaked underthing­ies, he shoots a wry smile towards the huddle of reporters waiting for Randy Carlyle’s stand-up scrum. “Come on over Phil and talk,” one of the scriveners beckons, sarcastica­lly. “Yeah, right,” No. 81 snorts. He doesn’t do scrums either, much. Saturday was a serious work boots kind of afternoon, once the hello agains were exchanged.

“Everybody’s been sitting around relaxing, seeing family and trying to get away from the game for a couple of days,” towering D-man Cody Franson said.

“Today was definitely a day to get back to the rink and get dialed in again to our systems, get focused for the task at hand.”

The message has not changed since pre-Xmas — get those darn shots against down so that Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer don’t have to stand on their heads to earn a W. The whiteboard tutorials focused on that challenge.

“It’s a matter of playing a little bit more to be physical in our D-zone and executing a little bit better at the other end of the ice,” said Franson.

This is not quantum physics. The players grasp their faults and lapses. Yet they continue to commit the same sins. It may be that’s simply who they are, collective­ly, but those who’ve been around the last couple of years also know where that recalcitra­nce tends to lead — and it’s not the playoffs.

The team does take strength from two solid forward lines that have each produced offence — scoring certainly not the Leafs’ Achilles heel. On Saturday’s evidence, Carlyle is sticking with the reconstitu­ted lines that fared well in Dallas: Lupul matriculat­ed to the top troika with Kessel and Tyler Bozak; James van Riemsdyk plugged onto the wing with Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli.

If JVR is unhappy about the demotion, he’s not saying so. In any event, the unit seems to have chemistry.

“With (Kadri), he’s really good at slowing the play down and making guys come to him and identifyin­g those openings he creates,” says Riemsdyk. “Obviously he’s real good at finding me and getting me the puck. And Santo is really good on the cycle, cutting back with the puck, using his strength on the puck and his offensive ability to create chances.”

The team was also clearly heartened by the return of Leo Komarov, sidelined with a concussion since Alex Ovechkin elbowed him in the head Nov. 29. It was the first time Uncle Leo has skated with the team, though still not cleared for bumping.

“The next step will be contact,’’ said Carlyle. “Once he has contact, I would think — but I’m not the doctor — that he would be available to us the very next day.”

Practice ended with a “fun” exercise, wherein every player had to take a shot from centre ice with the puck rising over a stick Carlyle had laid down. No goal, no lift, no off the ice. Last to accomplish it: Phaneuf. The captain warned a reporter: “Don’t make fun of me.”


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 ?? ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and the Leafs returned to work Saturday in Sunrise, Fla., after the NHL’s Christmas break.
ANDREW FRANCIS WALLACE/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and the Leafs returned to work Saturday in Sunrise, Fla., after the NHL’s Christmas break.
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