The helicopter drops you off at the apex of the mountain. As your chopper lifts away, you gaze down at the sea of fresh powder upon which you are about to boldly descend. Your run starts well but, as you are carving your way across the slope, you hear a low rumble. Seconds later, you are buried by an avalanche (the non-Colorado variety) of snow. It’s over. You are toast. Done for. That was the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 13th. Finished. Caput. Hasta la vista, baby! 10 losses in their last 11. Playoffs? Oh, there would be no playoffs.
But just when you thought the Leafs were dead and buried, someone found their locator beacon. I’d say it was Ron Wilson but I’m not sure that guy could find an egg in a henhouse. Frankly, it appears that the players have found the damned beacon themselves! Seven wins in the last month, including shootout thrillers against Boston and Washington, kick-started by that four power-play-goal affair against Nashville at ACC. The Leafs live! And there are two very simple reasons why.
1. The entire offence is finally showing signs of life – They’re still wildly inconsistent but, lately, the bad stretches haven’t been as long. Remember the end of October, when they were shutout back-to-back by Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist? Now, they’ve scored 18 goals in their last six games. Not the Oilers of the 1980s, but good enough for four wins over that span. The keys? Mikhail Grabovski has four goals in those six, not including a shootout beauty that sealed the win in D.C. And Phil "Never saw a snapshot from the circle I didn’t like" Kessel has scored twice in his last two. And when Nazem Kadri finally gets his first NHL goal, the floodgates will open for him. Guaranteed. Even Dion Phaneuf and Tomas Kaberle are finally put goals on the scoresheet.
2. Team defence has shut the door – Over the entire season, the Leafs have held their opponent to two-or-fewer goals thirteen times. Pretty good for a team that gave up more goals than any other in the Eastern Conference last year. Right now, they are in the middle of the conference pack in GA. Over the past two games, against an admittedly lacklustre Canadiens squad and an explosive Oilers team, Jean-Sébastien Giguère has only given up two goals. He played well in Edmonton but, for my money, didn’t see a ton of difficult shots. Every player on the roster gets credit for the renewed defensive shutdown. But they need to keep up that work ethic.
I see a common thread. What’s that phrase I’m looking for? Oh ya…playing like a team. When the Leafs – the youngest team in the NHL – do it – top to bottom, front to back – they are formidable NHL opponents. Perhaps we should credit Ron Wilson. (Wow, that last sentence was tough to write!)