The Toronto Maple Leafs are riding a wave of success at the moment, winning 14 of 16 games since late October, as well as four-straight entering Wednesday night’s home game against the mighty Colorado Avalanche. The Leafs currently are the top team, points-wise, in the NHL standings. And there are a few things worth noting about Toronto’s stellar game right now.
Firstly, take a look at the Leafs’ leaders in points-per-game average. You’ll find the top four PPG producers to be the same top four players on Toronto’s payroll. Captain John Tavares leads the way with a 1.00 PPG; star center Auston Matthews is next at 0.95; in third place is winger William Nylander at .091; and finally, winger Mitch Marner is fourth at 0.83. This, of course, is the Leafs’ Big Four; call them whatever you want but right now, they are justifying GM Kyle Dubas’ belief and investment in them.
We all know playoff NHL hockey is significantly different than regular-season NHL hockey, and this season, for Dubas & Co., is all about playoff hockey. The thing is, the pressure on Toronto’s top players is to play well after the regular season ends.
That said, the Leafs’ newfound devotion to defence makes it more prepared for the more important games to come. They look like they could win puck-battles along the boards and limit their mistakes to an absolute minimum. They look like they could ride a hot goaltender (read: Jack Campbell) through at least a round or two this year. And they look like the Core Four could be set to take the next step in their competitive evolution.
For now, though, they’ve got to punch their way through the 59 games they have left in the regular season. And when they do fall into a bad patch, it’s important you remember what this winning streak feels like now, and what the Leafs are capable of if they’re truly more plugged in.
Winning as much as Toronto has already this year gives them a bit of cushion to survive a small losing skid, but if they still play as smartly as they have through 23 games, they won’t need any cushion. They’ll be battling to lock up top spot in the Atlantic Division, and a guarantee of home ice throughout the playoffs. That has to be the short-term goal, and we all know what the long-term goal is.
It’s hard to think of a better start to the year than the ones this year’s Leafs have had. Almost all of the Core Four have had some adversity, and yet, here all of them are, chipping in with goals from physically-punitive areas with blazing speed and skill. Their defence corps has quietly improved and currently has amassed 33 points this season. Leading blueliner Morgan Rielly has been terrific, with 14 of those points. And although again, some have struggled – mainly D-men Justin Holl and Travis Dermott, who’ve been in and out of the lineup on a game-to-game basis – the Leafs have limited second-chance scoring opportunities in their own zone, and held opponents to the periphery most nights. Campbell has been outstanding, but there’s no question he’s had help in getting to where he is at present.
The news was almost all good news for Leafs fans at the time this column was posted. Their best players are being their best players. The grand majority of the new faces Dubas brought in last summer – Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kaše, and David Kampf, in particular – have assimilated into Toronto’s system with ease. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has kept his team focused and confident. What more could you ask for?
The only place to go from here may be down, but the Leafs’ true test will be how quickly they get back to the top after taking a beating or two. That’s going to be what the playoffs are like. That’s what their eventual playoff opponents will bear down on – to see if the Leafs have the collective willpower to push deeper into the post-season.
Right now, they look like they do, and that’s got to be enough. Patience, Leafs fans.
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