Leafs inconsistent, but showing good

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

It's starting to come together.

Slowly but surely, the Maple Leafs are starting to give some indications that they are heading in the right direction.

Their 5-4 victory over the Calgary Flames last night was another step along the way, and showed that the Leafs still have a lot of areas that require attention. But more importantly, it showed progress in a number of key areas.

Coach Paul Maurice warned at the beginning of training camp that the Leafs would not become Stanley Cup contenders overnight. But he did express some hope that by November, they would at least understand the system and, more often than not, be using it to advantage.

The Leafs made it painfully obvious in their 7-6 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night that there still are some serious potholes in the road. There was more of the same last night as the Leafs produced another inconsistent performance.

They looked superb in building a 2-0 lead, transformed themselves into an inept group of bumblers to fall behind 3-2, looked good to regain the lead, then squandered it, only to win on Mats Sundin's short-handed overtime goal.

Problems of inconsistency like that will continue. The National Hockey League is far too competitive to allow a team such as the Leafs to dominate from start to finish.

But management's hope is that the Leafs improve steadily as the season goes on. And so far, despite the occasional pratfall, they appear to be doing just that.

Thanks to the emergence of a couple of young players, they can send out two strong lines -- which is about all you can expect in this modern era of parity and churn.

Kyle Wellwood appears to be the perfect fit for Sundin and Darcy Tucker, while on the second line, Matt Stajan has melded with Jeff O'Neill and Alexei Ponikarovsky to form another dangerous unit.

And really, as long as there aren't any total collapses in goal or on defence, that's the key to success in today's NHL. Increasingly, you live or die with the power play.

Since the new rule interpretations came into force a year ago, scoring is up across the league. But with the teams at full strength, it is down. This is now a power-play league. What you do with the man advantage determines your fate.

The Leafs' power play still is not spectacular from a statistical point of view.

But it's clear that it is starting to show signs of progress, especially when the top unit is out there.

On the second unit, O'Neill is looking more and more like the player whose quick release once filled nets all over the league, and Ponikarovsky has a wicked shot that should pay dividends if he can get it under control.

But with Wellwood quarterbacking the first power play from the bottom of the circle, the Leafs have a weapon that should become increasingly potent.

Wellwood uses a tiny stick that allows him to keep the puck close to his body and control it while protecting it. He's a superb passer and he sees the ice well.

So when he stands in the corner, he has a number of options. If the defenders rush him, he can find an open Sundin at the top of the circle or Tucker at the side of the net.

He passes the puck across the top of the crease so quickly that goaltenders, whose responsibility it is to stop that pass, can't react in time. After that, it's up to Tucker to slam it home -- which he did last night for the Leafs' first goal.

It's reminiscent of the famed Calgary Flames power play of the 1980s, when Al MacInnis and Gary Suter manned the points and a series of Flames forwards, notably Hakan Loob and Joe Nieuwendyk, took advantage of the open ice that was created when the defenders had to rush out to stop the blue-line threat.

The Leafs have some work to do to match the potency of that power play, just as they have some work to do in a number of other areas.

But at least they seem to be heading in the right direction.


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