Through 24 games the Leafs sit 6th in the Eastern Conference 1 point up on the Ottawa Senators and just 4 points behind the Boston Bruins. With 15 wins and 31 points the Leafs have started off the shortened season on fire and look to be poised to end their long post-season drought. Despite the great start to the season for the Leafs, there's still not a lot of optimism surrounding this team yet and a major reason why is last seasons major collapse. The Leafs went from playoff contention before the all-star break to a top 5 draft pick by the end of the season- the good news this season, there's no all-star break!
As Steve Dangle points out saying the "P" word is almost too difficult for Leafs fans who have suffered through so many close calls. But because of the fantastic start by the Leafs (and the 48 game season) the Leafs just need to play .500 hockey to have a valid shot at being in the top 8 in the East and thus entering the playoffs. Now that Brian Burke is no longer controlling the Leafs and Randy Carlyle has taught them how to play hockey there's a different feel to the 2013 Leafs than past teams. They don't seem to be as fragile- they've yet to lose back to back games, they've survived injuries to Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer and most importantly they never seem to be out of a game. Despite losing 5-4 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the shootout, the Leafs never gave up in the game being down 3-1 after 1 period and then 4-2 later on. They showed great grit and determination and managed to drag out a point in a game they were badly outplayed.
What the Leafs and their fans should be proud of is the fact that other teams are finally starting to consider them a legitimate team.
"They've difinitely tightened up their game. I'm one of those guys who believe they are a legit contender!" ~ Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien.
To get a complement like that from a divisional rivals head coach is huge and speaks volumes for how far the Leafs have come under Carlyle. Now when teams are getting ready to face the Leafs they no longer think it's an "easy 2 points" they know it's going to be a hard fought battle right to the end. The Leafs have a shot to win against any team in the East right now and are no longer getting blown-out by powerhouses like the Penguins and Bruins.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about the Leafs 15-10-1 record, is the fact Phil Kessel hasn't hit his stride yet! Kessel has just 7 goals through the first half of the season but because Nazem Kadri (11 goals) and James van Riemsdyk (14 goals) have picked up the slack the Leafs don't have to worry. Even Matt Frattin who has only played 11 games is tied for 4th on the team in scoring with 7 goals.
The Leafs have been getting production from everywhere. Tyler Bozak has 6 goals and has been winning face-offs like a mad man winning 54.5% of his face-offs. Kadri has 25 points in 26 games, JVR is turning into a great power forward playing on the first line, Clarke MacArthur has netted 7 goals and Colton Orr has put up 3 points and 62 penalty minutes proving he's still a valuable player. Michael Kostka and Mark Fraser have both been solid on the blue-line combining for 12 points after making the team after starting the year with the Marlies.
On top of the offence stepping up to the plate and doing their job you also have to credit the goaltending. Coming into the season everyone thought the tandem of Ben Scrivens and James Reimer would be weak and the downfall of the team. But through the first 24 games both have been solid between the pipes, giving the Leafs a chance to win every night. Even though Reimer was a little shaky against the Penguins, he got his game under control and came up big late in the game for the Leafs.
As I mentioned earlier the Leafs just need to finish off the year playing .500 hockey and in all likely hood they wont, they'll finish above .500. This is a proud Leafs team, they know the skill that they have, they've become more accountable and they're not going to limp into the playoffs. Carlyle will keep them focused and accountable, if they start to slack he'll replace them with players who really want to battle hard.
Everything seems to be clicking for the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs and with Lupul returning from his injury soon they're about to get another offencive weapon back. It seems that despite the hockey crazy market of Toronto not giving the Leafs much credit yet, (picking apart their every move), the Leafs are able to keep rolling on- almost like they play better when people have no faith in them. The Toronto Maple Leafs embrace the roll as the underdog and this year their never give up attitude will earn them a spot in the playoffs.