Some of you will recognize that I borrowed my headline today from the legendary Satchel Paige. The Leafs sure don't seem to be looking back, as they continue to surprise many of us with, well, a record we simply did not anticipate.
I’m not suggesting the Maple Leafs are beating teams that look remotely like the ’77 Habs these days, but hey, they are winning. And at the end of the day—and at the end of the current season—that’s all that will matter. As much as I’ve followed this sport and this franchise for well over fifty years, I’m not sophisticated enough an observer to be able to break down all the reasons why the team is having success so far this season,. Whatever the reasons, they have managed to quietly compile a record of 10 wins and 6 losses and a rather remarkable road record of 7 and 2. (C’mon, 7 and 2 on the road...that would be good if they were playing you and I and some friends, but in the NHL?)
I will say this: decent goaltending helps. Reimer was pretty darn sharp most nights before he was hurt, and Scrivens, if anything, is getting better the more he plays after some earlier shaky moments. (That save in the opening minute after the Gunner gaffe set the right tone against the Panthers.) I thought the Leafs would be a dull team, and while they aren’t spellbindingly fun to watch a lot of the time, winning trumps a fancy team that loses a lot, eh?
They are far from perfect (this is the Eastern Conference we’re talking about, after all), but our guys are playing their “roles” awfully well for the most part. Those who are supposed to finish their checks are doing that. (Everyone is supposed to do that, but you know what I mean.) The scorers are scoring, or at least setting up somebody else when they aren’t. The checkers are checking and the fighters are fighting.
Not much of an analysis, I realize.
Significantly, one of the things I preached about here for ages at VLM was the lack of a Leaf identity, and a related lack of “team toughness”. I’m not sure we have an identity quite yet, but his particular Leaf team is not allowing itself to be run over. If anything, this business of having three “tough guys” or “fighters” in the lineup at the same time, in a Conference where not many teams are exactly star-studded, seems to be working—so far.
We’re not getting blown out. We’re pretty physical, with McLaren, Orr, Brown, McClement and Komarov taking turns demonstrating a nice nasty streak. Our defense (as now constructed) plays a system such that it doesn’t seem to much matter who is back there. I mean, Gardiner was supposed to be our budding star this season and take the world by storm. He may still yet this year, but in his absence, others have filled in just fine, thank you. Monday night, Liles took his turn sitting, with Gunnarsson back in the lineup. Komisarek had fought his way back into the 'top-six' on the back end a while back but now can't get back in. Holzer got his shot and now doesn’t seem to want to give it up. Before him it was Franson missing time, who similarly is making it very difficult (occasional miscues aside) for the coach to ply his butt to the bench.
I mean really, did any of us, honest to goodness, figure Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka would be two players that Randy Carlyle believed he could not do without? Heck, Gardiner has been ready to rejoin the big club for a while now (he had an outstanding game with the Marlies on Monday afternoon), but that means that not only will high-priced veterans Komisarek and Liles possibly sit, but guys who, in fairness, have not done anything to be demoted to the press box -or the Marlies- will lose ice.
Again, I’m not implying that we have Robinson, Savard and Lapointe back there, but then, neither does anyone else these days.
I don’t know what to say. Phaneuf seems to have listened to the moans of fans who have been calling on him to stop blasting bullets off the back glass (or his teammates). Maybe he just started watching Franson. Whatever, his smart shot selection has helped him put up points in five successive games now.
Up front, Kadri continued his generally sharp play and helped wake up MacArthur against the listless Panthers. (Funny guy MacArthur. He’s a guy I don't get, but just when I think he has no future here, he does something that makes me take a step back.) Theodore still hasn’t located Kessel’s first period missile. The Leafs are scoring enough to win, and prevent the opposition from generating a ton of offense a lot of nights. Is it all Carlyle’s emphasis on defensive awareness? That the club has some legitimate toughness for the first time in a while? Is it as simple as the goaltending being a lot better so far this season? Special-team improvements?
It’s all of that, I guess, and probably a bunch of related things that we may not always notice but make teams better than they might otherwise be. Chemistry is one of those things that winning teams simply seem to have and losing teams wish they could find. Right now, this Leaf team is responding to the coach, getting solid goaltending, seems to like playing together and while they aren’t always exciting to watch, as a fan, you feel like they’ll be in just about every game.
We’ve had moments in previous seasons where we thought things were finally trending our way, then something went off the rails. We know that could still happen this season, of course. But in the same breath, you’d think it would have happened when we lost our best all-around forward (Lupul); or our most dynamic young defenseman (Gardiner); and surely when Reimer (who had finally emerged as a legitimate number-one guy) was hurt with no veteran ready to take over.
Yet is hasn’t happened. And I’m not saying it won’t, but I sure didn’t think the LA Kings were a great team last season either and they got hot and parlayed hard work and remarkable goaltending to a Stanley Cup. I’m hardly suggesting that is on the horizon for the Leafs, but my point is that you don’t need, in today’s hockey world, it seems, to have a roster filled with stars. If you have the right kind of “stars”—leaders who fight for ice and don’t just use their talent—of course you’re going to beat teams that lack elite skill and firepower and just “work hard”, all things being equal. But teams with toughness, character and just enough skill can win, too.
My theme of the past two months has not changed: the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East. I’m still not saying it will happen, but something is happening right now, though I can’t tell you for sure what it is. But I do know this: teams that believe in themselves have success. And whether this group should or not, it has that belief. And I don’t know for sure if faith can move mountains, but it sure makes you feel like you can.
What the heck, be not afraid. On to Tampa.