|Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mike Komisarek celebrates with his teammate Tyler Bozak after Komisarek’s goal against the New York Rangers in the second period of their NHL hockey game in New York, October 15, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar
TORONTO - For Toronto’s long-suffering hockey faithful, it’s like Christmas in October.
But storing some candy for Easter and a run at a playoff position is foremost on the minds of the 4-0 Maple Leafs, who have been the surprise of the NHL’s first week of action.
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” general manager Brian Burke said Saturday morning, arising after the late-night flight from New York to see his team really is leading the NHL for the moment. “Yes, it’s a marvelous streak, but it’s because the work ethic has stood out.
“Mike Zigomanis leading us in faceoffs, Tim Brent chipping in a couple of goals, the top-six/bottom-six (dynamic), what Mike Brown has brought to the team. The longest run I’ve ever had as a GM was 10 straight wins and, when that happens, a lot of little things have to go right.”
Let’s examine some:
1. G and G = good goaltending
In three of the four wins, big saves at game’s end by either Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Jonas Gustavsson saved the Leafs’ bacon as the heebie jeebies gripped them clinging to a lead. This time last year, the Leafs were 0-4 with 17 goals against. As of now, they are 4-0 with only nine getting through.
Each goalie has struggled during a game, too: Gustavsson in Pittsburgh and Giguere on Friday in New York, but it hasn’t mattered at crunch time. And with no back-to-backs until Nov. 2-3, there’s plenty of time for both stoppers to rest.
2. Speed kills
“We’re working teams hard and tiring them out,” Burke noted. “It comes down to we have the puck more, we keep our shots low and get the puck back. It’s important that your top six forwards are quick, but we need that from our bottom six, too, from players such as Brownie.
“I know it’s fashionable to say we planned it this way. But as much as we knew (first line winger) Kris Versteeg had wheels and that Phil Kessel would be better with a full summer to train, it has been Fredrik Sjostrom who has been a surprise. When (senior advisor) Cliff Fletcher first mentioned Shoey to us, he said he had him in Phoenix and he was really going to make a difference. You look at what he has meant to our penalty kill.”
3. MacArthur’s spark
Sure, he’s scored in four straight games before. But that was probably in junior with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers or Drayton Valley of the Alberta junior league. As an NHLer, MacArthur had 44 goals in 208 games with Buffalo and Atlantabut when he had just three in 21 for the Thrashers, they walked away from an arbitration award and he landed with the Leafs.
Last year, Niklas Hagman was the first to hit five with a hat trick on Oct. 26, the date of the Leafs’ first win.
4. PK IS A-OKAY
No turnaround in team fortunes could occur without a dramatic reversal in penalty killing and power play. Toronto had somehow blundered its way to 30th spot in both columns the year before. The Leafs haven’t changed tactics as much as changed players, with quick sticks getting in the way, blocking shots or in the passing lanes.
While 93.3% penalty killing speaks for itself, the 15% power play needs work. But the latter has more bombs from the point in Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin and shows more creativity with Versteeg. One of the most effective moves has been Phaneuf coming off the point to the net and taking some punishment to create a screen, which compels Tomas Kaberle to shoot a bit more.
5. Perfect attendance
When the Leafs were losing 12 of their first 13 games last season, they were able to come back with the same lineup just three times, either because of injury or poor play.
So far — and Burke and Wilson are madly knocking on wood — Toronto has not had to change its 18 skaters, making only one switch in goal. That won’t last of course. Carl Gunnarsson might get the hook for Brett Lebda in Monday’s game against the Islanders after sitting the second half on Friday. But it says something about health and well-being.
“We put a lot into off-season training,” Burke said. “And last night was the first time I remember our trainer being on the ice. “When I first came, he was out there every period, Our guys were getting run, bumped and face washed. That really stopped with Colton Orr and this year, we’ve got Brownie to help him.”