And we all know what happened exactly a year ago—February came and before we knew it, it was April and we were on the outside looking in, again, when it came to the Eastern Conference playoff picture. We went from excitement about Ron Wilson’s ‘run and gun’ offense and how fast we looked most nights compared with the opposition, to wondering what the heck just happened.
So it’s natural for some of us to withhold, not our hopefulness so much, but maybe our “all in” optimism, when we have been let down so many times before.
Look, I recognize that we can always find “negatives” and all kinds of reasons why the Leaf record (now 8 wins against 5 losses) might be a mirage. The Habs have looked awful in the games we have played against them. Winnipeg is hardly a power in the East, wildly inconsistent as they are. The Flyers have struggled mightily on the road. So before you know it, we can try to minimize what the Leafs have done thus far. Throw in that people are now more and more picking on Mike Kostka (I won’t. I still like what he’s doing. Why must we always have a scapegoat player—in the old days it was someone like Larry Murphy and more recently Toskala, Raycroft, Gustavsson, Lebda, Schenn, now Kostka. This is when I don’t like Twitter. It’s just so unnecessary) and injuries to key players like Lupul and now Reimer, and I suppose we could be negative. But why?
Part of the fun of being a fan is allowing ourselves to enjoy the good moments. Not many (any?) of us are expecting a Cup this season. I do think, as I have stated here since before the lockout even ended, that the Leafs can make the playoffs in the East. And they can. And based on the (albeit still early) returns thus far and the evidence I am seeing many nights, they will make it not simply because of my longstanding “the East is weak” thesis, but because the Leafs are simply playing a lot better than many teams in their Conference right now. And last I checked, it doesn’t matter when you earn your points, or against whom. What matters is winning games.
So why this turnaround?
I have no expert analysis, but I will comment on a few obvious areas:
- Carlyle is a new voice, and for whatever reason—maybe because this group is young and still fighting for a job most nights—the players are responding by adhering to his “system” and how he wants them to play.
- At this point, they are definitely a more physical team than they have been in recent years. I’m not just talking about fisticuffs. I’m referring to driving to the net, and fighting those ever-important corner and board battles.
- Reimer has played some awfully good goal for this team all season. (Hopefully his injury is short-term only and Carlyle suggested as much after the game.)
- Kadri is emerging as a very nice player. I don’t want to honk my own horn, but some of you will recall that, long ago, I wondered why this young man was playing on the wing with the Leafs when he had been a center through much of his career. Now he is blossoming as an effective middle-man. He may already be one of our best when it comes to finding ‘soft’ spots in the defensive zone, and also in terms of his vision and ability to find the open man. Yes, I know he still has a long way to go to “prove” himself at this level, but he has certainly demonstrated he can play here. As with any young player trying to make his mark, he will have to overcome hurdles, including what kind of player he is when the games get tough, and during the playoffs. My guess is he will welcome the challenge and respond.
- While I’m still in a ‘wait and see’ mode with van Riemsdyk, how can I miss the numbers? He is producing points, spends time in front of the opposition net, and is contributing as well as we could possibly have hoped. While he is one of those guys that may leave us wanting more at times, he brings a level of production that we have needed on the top units.
- Komarov has brought an edge that this team has missed for many years. Is he Darcy Tucker without the over-the-edge antics? It’s far too early to tell, but he clearly has potential as a fairly high-end agitator.
- Franson with two more points gives him 8 already on the season, and he has spent some time in the press box, which makes his point totals from the back end all the more impressive. We all see that he gets his shot through to the net more often than not, something even Phaneuf seems to be picking up on, based on the captain’s goal Monday night.
- Those who follow VLM know I said last season that I projected Frattin as more than just a replaceable extra part. I said he could be a mini power-forward. He is willing to go to the net, and while he has a tremendous shot, most of his goals (7 already, is it?) this season have come not from firing the puck but from putting himself in a good position by going to the net. That he can be a powerful guy bursting in from his off-wing, a la Kessel, just adds to his effectiveness.
- Liles, the “veteran”, is drawing over 20 minutes a night and he has quietly played better and better most nights since the beginning of the season.
- How can I not mention Colton Orr? I’m not trying to sound like Don Cherry, but when you work as he did to earn a shot, then takes advantage of limited playing time, I have to acknowledge that. I don’t know what his role can/will be come spring and a playoff match-up in the East but for now, I cannot deny he has contributed.
- McClement may have been one of the team leaders when it comes to playing with tenacity and now everyone (almost) is on that energy train. McClement helped the penalty-kill unit right away, and things have improved for him since, and he has been rightfully rewarded with minutes when needed.
Most of the Leaf goals against the Flyers came from either going to the net or someone being in front of the Flyer netminder. That approach is a recipe for success and it has helped propel the Leafs up the Eastern Conference standings.
For van Riemsdyk (just like Reimer must have felt vindicated with a shutout in Montreal on Saturday night, where he was injured more than a year ago) I’m sure he got a kick from scoring against his former team. Any athlete wants to do well against the team that traded them. That he scored off a neat feed from Kessel and drove past Schenn (the man he was traded for) just added to his celebratory mood, I’m sure.
(Quick aside: I don’t see Reimer as being brittle, as was suggested—or at least alluded to by the Sportsnet panel during the broadcast. C’mon, the guy plays goal. It’s a high-risk position. He was concussed last season. Against the Flyers, he appeared to wrench something after making a series of excellent saves, continuing his string of solid play. I just don’t see how we can say the guy is injury-prone.)
I think VLM readers know that I’ve been following this team for decades, and am not inclined to become unduly enthralled with short-term success. I’ve seen that movie many, many times over the last forty years. I’m usually wary. Four wins doesn’t make a season. But at the same time, as I said above, why not enjoy this? These moments have been few and far between over the last ten years, so hey, I’ll stick with my earlier assessment: in the East, there is absolutely no reason why this team can’t make the playoffs.
Winning always makes it seem so, but am I wrong in sensing that these guys like one another? That can't hurt.
In any event, every win likely attracts more believers (“Be-Leaf-ers?). Where are you right now?