The reason the Toronto Maple Leafs have celebrated back-to-back victories to begin the season is because they have more players willing to take out the trash than a year ago.
That's the reasoning of Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson anyway, after his team thoroughly thrashed the Ottawa Senators 5-1 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, two days after Toronto edged the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 at home in the season opener.
To start the season with Phil Kessel as well as newcomers Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur has increased Toronto's skill level. But almost as important has been the addition of third- and fourth-liners like centre Tim Brent.
"You want guys to do the dirty work," Wilson said. "You want guys who will take out the garbage."
Brent scored for the second game in a row, when his hard work led to an unassisted goal in the third period. A lengthy video replay was needed to make sure the puck had snuck past Ottawa goalie Pascal Leclaire, but Brent was "confident" he had scored to keep pace for an 82-goal season — as his teammates chided him in the dressing room afterward.
The 26-year-old Brent had only 19 NHL games of experience prior to landing a spot on the third line alongside wingers Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom after a strong training camp
"It's nice to chip in," Brent said. "Like I've said, if we take care of things in our own end, we're going to get our chances. [Armstrong] and [Sjostrom] are so strong on the puck, it's easy to play with them."
Brent can appreciate the excitement the Maple Leafs have generated after their two wins (it took the Leafs until their 14th game last season to celebrate their second win of the season). He played junior up the street for the St. Michael's Majors and was living in the city when the Maple Leafs made their run to the 2002 NHL Eastern Conference final.
Brent recalled how excited he and his fellow students at St. Michael's College were because of the Maple Leafs' success that spring. At the all-boys school, the students wear navy blazers to class.
"We would write with chalk on the back of our blazers our favourite players and their number," said the native of Cambridge, Ont., who said that he was either Darcy Tucker or Steve Thomas.
Back then, Brent occasionally would find himself in the seats at the Air Canada Centre because his billet, Linda Bowles, had access to tickets through work. He cherished his visits to the ACC to watch the Leafs and that's why he is so determined not to give up his spot on the Toronto roster.
Brent beat the more heralded Nazem Kadri for the third-line centre role.
"My focus hasn't changed since Day 1 of training camp," he said. "I show up every day to prove that I belong here. It really doesn't have anything to do with Naz. He has a chance to benefit from playing in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies and that coaching staff. It benefited me."
With the Senators playing in Buffalo on Friday evening in a hard-fought 2-1 loss, the Maple Leafs wanted to pressure Ottawa's defence as much as possible and make life difficult.
It's never easy to play back-to-back games on successive nights, but it is even more difficult in the early going because the conditioning isn't there. Just ask the Sabres because they also got pounded on Saturday, 6-3 by the New York Rangers at home.
Leafs quicker to puck
The Maple Leafs were first to the puck all evening against the Senators and won most of the battles for possession. Toronto also limited its turnovers in the neutral zone against the dangerous Senators.
"It was fun to watch," Wilson remarked.
Brent also should help improve the success of the Maple Leafs penalty-killing unit, which finished last in 2009-10. So far, so good this season. They have gone a perfect seven-for-seven in man-disadvantage situations.
"It was quite a game for the whole team," Brent said.
The Maple Leafs enjoyed a 2-0 lead after the first period and 3-0 after 40 minutes. Ottawa's Jason Spezza, who missed his club's season opener due to a groin strain, snapped the shutout bid by Toronto goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere midway through the third period with the Maple Leafs already up by five.
Spezza, however, also lost the puck on his first shift. MacArthur stripped the inconsistent Spezza behind the Ottawa goal and found Nikolai Kulimen out front for the game's first goal 98 seconds in. Kessel, MacArthur and Versteeg scored the other Toronto goals.
The Maple Leafs outshot Ottawa 38-18.