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!)

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  • Honestly, I have been shocked at the lack of creativity and ambition Phil Kessel displays on a regular basis.

    Unless he smartens up and scores about 50 this season, Burke will indeed be continually vilified for that deal with the Bruins.

    • Kessel has always been a secondary player. He needs someone to play with that can do the creative work and allow him to score. Doing it on his own is not his strong suit. No way he breaks 40, much less 50 without a strong supporting cast.

      His best season to date in 2008-09 (36-24-60) came when the Bruins had a healthy Marc Savard and David Krejci in the lineup. Those two combined for 114 assists that season. That season was big lift in Kessel’s performance as a pro as he took a big jump in production.

      Last year’s leaders in assists for the Leafs combined for 67 assists (Kaberle and Grabovski). And Kessel still had 30 goals last year and is on pace for another 30 this year. Given those circumstances, he has probably actually been better since joining the Leafs then he was with the Bruins. If the Leafs want him to be better, they need to get him some help.

      • So, if I read you right, you are saying we can’t really judge Kessel until he has a decent centre playing with him. That seems reasonable (although, in hockey-mad Toronto, difficult).

        Jari Kurri never gets 71 without Gretzky. And Mike Bossy probably never gets 50 without Bryan Trottier.

        Phil’s biggest problem is the target Mr. Burke put on his back by making that apparently one-sided trade.