After another improbable one goal victory last night over the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs have turned Leafs fans nightmares into dreams. Even the most ardent detractor has to give pause now and ask themselves whether the Leafs can really do it. Can Brian Burke’s team actually live up to his musings of a 3 year rebuild?
Since the All Star break, the Leafs have gone on an 8-2-2 run, and are now just 4 points out of the playoff picture. Only Buffalo and Carolina stand between them and 8th place. The Leafs play the Sabres twice, and the Hurricanes once more before the end of the season. Statistical analysts will put the likelihood of them making the post-season at around 5%, given all of the elements that must happen. Others set the benchmark at 90 points, meaning the Leafs would need 29 more points in 21 games, but stats don’t matter at this point.
What matters is the play on the ice. This team is starting to play like a TEAM. They are starting to believe in each other. They are starting to buy into Ron Wilson’s system, as evidenced late in the third period last night where they successfully snuffed out the Canadiens, preventing them from even being able to pull Carey Price for the extra attacker. You could see it again when the Leafs were given a 4 on 3 power play in the third as well. Knowing the risks involved and the team they were playing against, Burke sent out a defensive squad, happy to tick the time off the clock and protect the 2 goal lead rather than go for another risky goal.
Phil Kessel has started to buy into the system and is now a regular on the back-check. Since scoring against the Boston Bruins last week, a monumental weight has been lifted from Kessel’s shoulders. In that 5 game span, the last pick at the All Star game has scored 6 goals, 4 assists for 10 points, but it’s been the timing of the goals that has mattered. 3 of the goals have been game tying goals. 2 of them were the first goal of the game. 1 was a game winning goal. 4 have been power play goals. He assisted on the game winner last night. Kessel is producing and producing when it matters.
James Reimer continues to be the backbone of the defense, keeping the Leafs in every game. The Leafs are 4-0-1 in their last 5 and every one of those games has been a one goal game. The Leafs are proving that they can shut down the opposition late in the game, and Reimer is a big part of that. He’s 10-4-2, with goaltending splits that rival Boston’s Tim Thomas, the heavy favourite to win the Vezina trophy this season.
The Leafs are even seeing contributions from their foot soldiers, like the short-handed game winning goal from Joey Crabb against Buffalo, or the solid penalty killing and board work displayed by Fredrik Sjostrom and Colby Armstrong. Darryl Boyce never seems to stop skating. Tim Brent is providing variety on the power play while continuing his solid work defensively. Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie are building a solid foundation on the Leafs blue line.
In the last two weeks, Burke has shipped out Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle, two big minute eaters on the blue line. The increased responsibility has been going to Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson and to a lesser extent, Mike Komisarek. Many fans felt that by dealing regulars like that Burke was passing on the playoffs, and yet the team has answered the bell, going 4-1-1 since dealing Beauchemin, 2-0-1 since dealing Kaberle.
The Leafs will play a rare back-to-back weekend, as they host the Crosby and Malkin-less Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, only to hop on a plane down to Atlanta for a Sunday match up against the free falling Atlanta Thrashers before the trade deadline hits on Monday. Burke has been stating that acquiring another puck rushing defenseman to work the power play is a priority, with the name John-Michael Liles being batted around. Either way this is a win-win situation for Burke. If he acquires a player it shows he feels they can make the playoffs. If he doesn’t it should be looked at as a vote of confidence in the existing group.
Win or lose, whether they make it or not, at the very least they have made it exciting to be a Leafs fan again. We can now resume dreaming the impossible dream, as it’s getting closer and closer to reality.