As dismal as the sentiment was in Leafland not that many days, it feels as though a mood of optimism now prevails. With a win over the Panthers Thursday night in the rear view mirror, the Leafs have 64 points when that total looked awfully far off three weeks ago. That means that Toronto is now in third place in the Atlantic Division, only three points behind the Lightning.
Some concerning trends have still been in evidence, including possession and shot differential issues (and penalty killing concerns as well) in many games. But the goaltending has been there. The young rookie pairing of Gardiner and Rielly has generally been impressive. The guys who are supposed to go to the net, like van Riemsdyk, are doing that and creating havoc every once in a while. The scorers, including Kessel, Kadri and Lupul, are now producing points regularly.
To me, they just look more, well, confident. Some goals—and a few wins—will do that. This is a lot more like the Leaf squad many of us were expecting to see back in October.
Of course there are plenty of things to work on. But the trend, it seems to me, is positive.
Importantly, the Leafs have not followed a six-game winning streak with a drought in the win column. Building on that foundation has been key. Had they suffered a letdown after the winning streak, it would have largely undone what they had accomplished.
What’s changed- is the system different? Are the roster adjustments paying off? Is the coaching staff doing a better job of putting players in a position to succeed?
I think it’s a bit of everything. Bozak’s return has helped. Bernier has given them the netminding they need. Gleason has made a difference as a stabilizing influence on the back end.
Leaf supporters will no doubt be monitoring the club as we get closer to playoff time, and wondering about certain recurring themes like leadership, toughness—things that make a difference in the playoffs.
But there is help on the way, too, especially if Bolland is fully healthy after the Olympic break.
Maybe the most interesting thing to follow in the weeks ahead will be whether Nonis feels the roster is good enough to make a run in the Eastern Conference. If so, will he leave the squad as is, with only minor tweaks- or look to enhance the roster in a significant way?
Right now, the glass is better than half full in Leaf country. But as I said on my most recent podcast, the one thing we can count on when we follow the Leafs: win or lose, it is rarely ever dull.