TORONTO - Enough of these “Let’s plan the parade route” references, please. For the time being, anyway.
Ever since the Maple Leafs won their second consecutive game to open the season with an impressive 5-1 drubbing of the rival Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the sarcastic remarks from the anti-Toronto establishment concerning an imminent Stanley Cup celebration have been flowing in ad nauseum.
That’s a little over the top after just 120 minutes of hockey.
Having said that, there is a different feel, a different look, a different aura about this team. It’s enough to at least give fans a reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Truth be told, the Leafs were the better side in both the victory over Ottawa and their 3-2 opening-night win over the Montreal Canadiens. Here are four significant reasons why they are off to their best start since 1999.
1. Penalty killing
Sure, it’s only two games. But killing off all seven short-handed situations they’ve faced so far is a testament to the hard work of penalty killers like Tim Brent and Fredrik Sjostrom, two player who, no doubt, are aware that the Leafs finished dead last (30th overall) in the NHL last season.
“It started in the pre-season,” assistant coach Tim Hunter said Monday. “We didn’t really have as much success as we wanted but the groundwork was laid in the pre-season.”
2. Net gains
Should the Leafs go on to have a successful season, J.-S. Giguere’s series of last minute saves on Montreal’s Brian Gionta opening night might be seen as the momentum boost the team needed to move forward. A year ago, Vesa Toskala just didn’t make those types of stops in crucial situations.
But Giguere’s presence cuts deeper than that. Knowing how reliable Giguere is allows the skaters to play an up-tempo pressure-type forechecking game with more zeal.
“You don’t want to say you want to take a few more chances but it does give you the confidence that he’s there,” Hunter said. “Your
No. 1 goalie should be your real leader on the team. He’s the guy that everyone looks to to settle things down.
“One of our management people (recently) noted that until we kind of get our team into a groove here, we’re really going to need our goaltending to hold us in.”
To date, Giguere has done exactly that.
3. Scoring depth
Phil Kessel has scored in each of the Leafs’ two games. That’s not news.
Clarke MacArthur and Brent also have two goals each. Now THAT’s news.
If the Leafs are to be successful, players not named Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg must offer some offensive support. So far, so good.
Referring to secondary scoring, Hunter said: “It’s finally starting to round out on this team,” adding that MacArthur has been “a nice surprise.”
4. New in blue
A quick study reveals that only 10 players on the Leafs’ current roster — Jonas Gustavsson, Tomas Kaberle, John Mitchell, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Colton Orr, Luke Schenn and Jeff Finger — participated in the team’s horrific 0-7-1 start a year ago. Kessel, remember, was still rehabbing from off-season shoulder surgery at the time.
With the new faces have come new attitudes. The Gigueres, Versteegs, Dion Phaneufs and Colby Armstrongs bring a competitive edge to the table, as evidenced by the heated ping-pong games going on in the dressing room Monday.
With road games in Pittsburgh and New York this week, the bloom could quickly come off the rose. Whether they continue to play at the high level exhibited in the first two games remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt they are better from a year ago.