November 21, 2011
Leafs a quarter of the way home
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - If anyone told the Maple Leafs at training camp that one quarter into the season, they’d be missing James Reimer for a month amid seven injuries, that their penalty killing would be bottom five and their roster would be the league’s youngest, it would hardly qualify as news.
This team has become accustomed to those hurdles in the Ron Wilson era. But if you’d also revealed that despite the setbacks, it would be their best 21-game start in four years and they’d be fighting for first in the conference, well that’s a man-bites-dog story.
While some nights the Leafs look like every other edition of the team that’s missed the playoffs the past six years, this team has yet to fall into the autumn abyss that has forced it to play an impossible game of catch-up through the winter.
“We’ve shown some improvements, even though the results haven’t been there lately,” winger Joffrey Lupul said Monday. “At the start of the year, we were scoring a lot and winning a lot of games 5-4 and 6-5. Now we have a little bit of an identity of things we want to do.”
The Leafs have had to score their way out of trouble a few times, in particular with Reimer out. But they are also using their legs to advantage, such as Sunday night when they looked dead on the end of a quick back-to-back in Carolina and nearly pulled off a third-period miracle point.
“We’re still a young team and we can get better at something like that,” Lupul said. “But for the most part, going into each game, we know the way we want to play.”
Phil Kessel leads the NHL in scoring, Lupul has set the table and isn’t far behind him on the ladder. The defence has stepped into the rush as planned and though there have been glitches, the Leafs didn’t lose two in a row until November.
“I like the fact that when we’re playing the way we want to, we are really good,” defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “But we have to be consistent about it, keep playing the whole game, the whole season.”
A couple of hurting players are inching back and Reimer is on this four-game road trip taking shots every day. Just as the Leafs did in the second half of last year when a rash of injuries struck, a relief column from the Marlies that includes Ben Scrivens, Joey Crabb and Joe Colborne has helped. And the Leafs continue to use four rookies on a daily basis, Scrivens, defenceman Jake Gardiner and forwards Colborne and Matt Frattin.
“Injuries give opportunities for other guys to step up,” Gunnarsson said. “A couple of other guys have to show what they can do, too.”
Lupul said the whole team can take a lesson from first-line centre Tyler Bozak, who wasn’t supposed to be at that spot this season.
“He’s doing a lot of little things and getting rewarded,” Lupul noted. “He’s going to the net a little harder and a little more consistently. He’s figured out what he has to do to be successful in this league. It’s the same for all of us. We have to figure out a way to do it for a longer period.
“It has been 20 games and everything’s been great, but now it’s a matter of expanding that through the other three quarters.”
* Phil Kessel becoming the first Leaf since Dave Andreychuk and Mats Sundin to lead NHL in goals and points this late.
* Leafs lead the NHL in blocked shots.
* Toronto’s power play goes top 10 in the league, at more than 20%
* Leafs tied with Buffalo for best faceoff percentage in the East.
* Mike Komisarek re-embraces a simpler game, before breaking his arm.
ON SECOND THOUGHT
* Secretive stance on the James Reimer injury caused needless distraction.
* Faith in Nikolai Kulemin and the second line so far goes unrewarded.
* Goaltending depth should be looked at.
* Leafs still suffer from flat starts, especially at home.
* Luke Schenn not yet living up to new contract.
RON IN CHARGE
(Leafs’ record in first quarter of each season under Ron Wilson)
Year W L OT Pts
2011-12 11 8 2 24
2010-11 8 10 3 19
2009-10 4 11 6 14
2008-09 7 9 5 19