In case the 4-0 Maple Leafs think they’re something special, it’s Revenge Of The Nerds month throughout the NHL.
Teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year have a strong record of 16-8-2 in the Eastern Conference as of Sunday morning and 13-11 in the West, led by the 4-0 Dallas Stars.
Toronto puts its best start in 18 years on the line Monday against another Eastern club on the rise, when the New York Islanders (2-1-2) visit.
“It’s a big test for us,” captain Dion Phaneuf said after a Ricoh Coliseum practice. “They’re playing very well, coming off a big win themselves (5-2 over Colorado).”
There was ample evidence the Leafs would be better this season, but so would the rest of last year’s Eastern also-rans, led by clubs such as Carolina, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay. But as perennial playoff qualifiers such as New Jersey and Ottawa are slow from the gate, the Leafs and Isles have stepped into the breach for now.
Thus far, the Leafs have caught breaks with a couple of teams missing men or playing on consecutive nights. On paper, the Leafs’ luck holds up this week with home games against both New York entries, each buffered by two days off.
“The spacing’s been great,” coach Ron Wilson agreed. “We can get some quality practices in, not play any games tired and, in fact, sometimes play tired teams. We want to take advantage of that.”
To a man, the Leafs are trying to keep the hot start in perspective, knowing how easily a rebuilding team can get fooled by a blip on the radar during an 82-game marathon. But they do enjoy walking the streets with heads held high, as opposed to slinking around last October when they dropped their first eight and were quickly out of the playoff race.
“You come to the rink every day with a smile on your face and it makes things so much easier,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Everyone’s in a better mood. You are allowed to joke around a little more and have fun. We’ve seen the other side of it around here and it can be pretty miserable. People have to realize it’s only the start of the season and that we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We are happy with our start, but not satisfied.”
A fifth win would be another two-point investment in a bank account the Leafs could draw upon next spring if they’re still in contention, a luxury they haven’t had when their traditional post-trade deadline surge kicks in.
“Four wins in October looks the same as four wins in March, but it’s not,” general manager Brian Burke said on the weekend. “You get those points early and ... well, you do the math.”
Not that the Leafs won’t make changes. When Carl Gunnarsson struggled in New York on Friday, Wilson went with five defencemen and didn’t dispute the idea on Sunday that Brett Lebda will make his Leafs debut against the Isles. A Cup champion with Detroit before being signed in anticipation that Tomas Kaberle wouldn’t be back, Lebda would be the first lineup switch other than in goal in the four games.
“(Lebda brings) speed, puck-moving ability, hopefully add a little bit to our offence,” Wilson said. “Not that he’s ever generated a lot, but playing with the Red Wings, he knows to get the puck in the forwards’ hands as quickly as possible. It helps our transition game.”
Lebda waited three weeks to get clearance from a training camp shoulder injury.
“It’s been horrible,” Lebda said of the delay. “I hate sitting there waiting and watching. If I go in there and we lose, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”