Saturday's game gave Leaf Nation a thoroughly satisfying win. For the first time this year they got their moneys worth. The Leafs played a well disciplined game. They didn't take bad penalties, refused to get sucked into playing Detroits game, and used their speed to counter attack all evening. Gustavsson was fantastic, again, but so was the defense. They made nice first passes, kept the front of the net clear and gobbled up all of The Monsters rebounds. They didn't try to make something out of nothing and effectively cleared the puck from their zone when they needed to. The few times the Red Wings did try to mount a sustained attack , the Leaf defense played to their own strengths and kept the puck to the outside, on the boards, where their size and strength gave them the advantage. They played the game Burke and Wilson have been promising us they could.
Leaf fans now know who their number one goalie is, they have a legitimate top offensive line, and best of all, they can start thinking playoffs again. Before all those anti-Leafs out there starting groaning and twittering about how Leaf Nation is talking Stanley Cup, I should mention this club is nowhere near that level yet. However, based on the last two weeks, I'm certain Toronto Maple Leaf players, management and fans, have the right to look forward to possibly playing hockey in the spring of 2010.
The first four weeks of the season was disastrous for The Toronto Maple Leafs. They squandered a third period lead in their season opener and lost with 13 seconds left in overtime to arch rivals, The Montreal Canadians. Little did fans know this was going to be the highlight of their first eight games of the season. They would have to wait to their ninth game of the year before earning their next point. That span of eight games saw them outscored 35-15. They looked lost. Toskala was terrible and showed absolutely no confidence between the pipes and their defense looked worse. To a player, every offseason pickup looked like a huge blunder by new GM Brian Burke.
The streak ended in Anaheim. The perfect ending to an horrific streak. Jonas Gustavsson, the Swedish goaltending prospect, signed in the offfseason as a major piece in Burkes rebuilding puzzle, was back from injury. He instantly won over fans and gave them the glimmer of hope they were desperately looking for. They won 6-3. Their powerplay was unstoppable and with The Monster as their best penalty killer, they were almost perfect when down a man. For the first time in 6 games they scored more than 2 goals. No more dumb penalties by Komisarek, Beauchemin was back to playing his game, and Tomas Kaberle woke up and became the best offensive defenseman in the game. Non-believers would say the Ducks lost the game on their own by taking so many penalties, and being so undisciplined. Most observers agreed, but since that game a new streak has begun and it's breathed new hope into Leaf Nation.
The past seven games has seen the Leafs record a point in every one of them. They have outscored their opponent 24-20 and have won three of those games in overtime. They've even won their last two in a row. They have the best powerplay in the league and the PK is getting stronger with every kill. If this wasn't good enough, Phil Kessel joined the team and gave them a spark not seen since the arrival of Doug Gilmour.
Kessel blasted on the scene with 10 shots against Tampa Bay and notched his first goal last night against Detroit, the game winner by the way. He's already on a point a game pace, but more importantly he's made the Leafs already lethal powerplay even more deadly. As an added bonus he's inspired Jason Blake to step up his game and may have turned youngster John Mitchell into a first line center overnight. Two firsts and a second round pick still sounds like a lot to give up but suddenly the trade is starting to look less one-sided. The most telling stat is, with Phil Kessel in the lineup they're 2-1 and have outscored the opposition 9-5.
Since this turnaround the Leafs sit tied for 27th overall. They're 5 points behind the Habs with 2 games in hand. If they win their next game against Minnesota they'll move ahead of them in the standings. They may overtake Florida and end up tied with Atlanta. They may find themselves only 4 points out of a playoff spot.
The Toronto Maple Leafs dug themselves a pretty deep hole in the first eight games this season. They 're far from climbing out. Fortunately the past seven games has shown fans, and the rest of the league, they aren't about to roll over and right off the season. Who knows, maybe Brian Burke wasn't just blustering. Maybe this team is better, and maybe Leaf players can leave their golf clubs at home this spring while they do battle in the Stanley Cup playoffs.