By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 19) – Undoubtedly, the Maple Leafs have proven – after one-third of the lockout-shortened season – that they are no longer among the dregs of the National Hockey League.
Plenty of time remains, of course, for the club to revert to such posture, as it did quite spectacularly in the final-third of last season. But, there is no indication, right now, of another monumental collapse – or even a lengthy down-turn. If Leafs are somehow able to maintain their current pace, the team will comfortably end its franchise-record playoff drought with 30 wins and 60 points. In the 48-game schedule of 1994-95, such accumulation would have slotted the Blue and White fifth in the overall standings. New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup that season with only 52 points.
Eighteen years later, Leafs have twice made it to the Cup semifinals and have been a playoff spectator nine times. So, the current team is hardly following a tough act. That said, no recent clamor would match the euphoria in this town were the Leafs to finally play beyond the regular season. That’s because few Leaf supporters less than 18 years of age have first-hand recollection of the last Toronto playoff appearance in 2004. The novelty factor, alone, would be overwhelming. Playoff success would turn the city upside down.
But, let’s not get carried away.
What we’re seeing to this point of the schedule is acutely unfamiliar – a team adhering to defensive responsibility nearly every night. A veteran Leaf observer may have to reflect more than three decades for any such correlation – to the Roger Neilson-coached team of 1977-78. Though the Toronto club in the early-90’s under Pat Burns performed adequately in the defensive zone, it had the best two-way forward in the game (Doug Gilmour), a luxury the current team does not possess. Even with Gilmour, goalie Felix Potvin often had to stand on his head for the Leafs to prevail.
Defensive awareness under Neilson allowed the ’77-78 club to shave 48 goals (285-237) off its total from the previous year while playing an 80 game-schedule. Maintaining their current pace under Randy Carlyle, the 2013 Maple Leafs would procure a similar result. After 16 games, the Leafs have allowed 36 goals (compared to 53 at the same point a year ago). Over the full 48-game schedule, Leafs would permit 108 goals: 36 less than their total after 48 games last season – an impressive reduction of .75 per match.
Such accomplishment would require three principal factors: a) avoiding key injuries down the stretch, b) dodging any form of complacency, and c) uncompromising discipline in the 100 feet of territory behind centre-ice – that which the club has demonstrated, for the most part, through 16 games. Adhering to a strict defensive mode will become increasingly difficult. It requires not only endurance, but a commitment to banality, for back-checking has never been among the most desirable components of the game.
LEAFS HAVE BEEN FEISTY AND LARGELY DISCIPLINED SO FAR THIS SEASON – COLTON ORR STEPPING UP AS HE DID ON MONDAY NIGHT IN SUNRISE, FLA. AGAINST OLD NEMESIS GEORGE PARROS. JOEL AUERBACH GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Goaltending is an obvious factor and another major improvement for the Leafs. Ben Scrivens has shown great poise in a sudden transition from back-up to starter, with James Reimer nursing a knee injury. Furthermore, the Leafs appear to have a desirable goaltending composition. Reimer is soft-spoken and quietly confident while Scrivens has developed a bit of swagger. That said, neither man has been forced to steal games. Though Leafs are giving up a high number of shots, many are from the perimeter and second-chances have been reduced. Both netminders have come up with big, early saves to establish the momentum all good teams need. But, their workload in the majority of games hasn’t hasn’t been overly demanding.
All of this augers well for the Maple Leafs, providing there is limited regression. The club has yet to encounter a dry spell of any length – the sort that no team can withstand in a truncated schedule. Leafs need to avoid a five or six-game slide in order to maintain their favorable position.
KEON CONTENTED: It was nice to see arguably the best player in franchise history among his venerable Leaf teammates on Saturday night. Whereas Dave Keon was uptight and uncomfortable while attending his first club-sponsored engagement five years ago, he seemed to genuinely enjoy being alongside such old hands as Dick Duff, Bob Pulford, Eddie Shack, Bob Nevin and Larry Hillman. Leafs held a pre-game commemoration of the 1963 Stanley Cup team as it approaches its 50th anniversary. With players of that era in their 70’s and 80’s, such gatherings will become increasingly rare.
DAVE KEON HAD A LONG, DISTINGUISHED CAREER IN THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS AND HARTFORD WHALERS.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]