As the COVID-19 virus hit the Maple Leafs Friday – with captain John Tavares and forward Alex Kerfoot both testing positive for it, and immediately being placed into the NHL’s COVID protocols – Toronto fans were understandably concerned. The Leafs’ Saturday road game against Vancouver hasn’t been postponed yet, with the keyword there being “yet”. We’re in uncharted waters, and that’s not easy on anyone.
However, if we can put that real-life turmoil aside for a brief while. is it not OK for Leafs fans to be happy with where the team is a little more than one-third of the way through the regular season? I mean, Toronto has flaws, but every team has flaws. The Tampa Bay Lightning put a clinic on when they handled the Leafs by a score of 5-3 on Dec. 9. The back-to-back-defending-Stanley Cup champions put the Buds on notice: they’re about as dangerous as they’ve ever been, even with injuries to key players.
But Toronto has been on the other side of that ass-kicking ledger, too: they mauled the Colorado Avalanche 8-3 on Dec. 1, then, in their most recent game, the Leafs steamrolled Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers 5-1 on Dec. 14. In fact, if you go back to when Toronto’s hot streak began, on Oct. 27 in Chicago, you’ll see that their subsequent 18-4-1 record included 15 wins where they scored at least three goals; in 11 of those games, they scored at least four goals. That’s impressive, and though we all are aware the Leafs ultimately will be judged in the playoffs, it’s fine for Leafs fans to be proud of their offensive prowess.
Related to that: Auston Matthews. This young guy is a force of nature, with the softest hands of about any NHLer other than Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. He’s so consistently terrific, Leafs fans are almost spoiled in expecting it now. Matthews is currently on a 10-game point streak, and in that span, he’s generated 13 goals and 18 points. To put up that points pace, as a 24-year-old under the intense spotlight that comes with playing in Toronto, says it all about Matthews’ star power. We have not seen local hockey played with this much skill in a very long time.
This year, Leafs fans should also be feeling good about the state of the team’s defense corps. Sure, the yikes-inducing play of Justin Holl is going to have to be addressed by the trade deadline. But Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has assembled a pretty solid back end, and it has paid off with the NHL’s fourth-best defense (averaging just 2.50 goals-per-game). Fourth-best! That says something about Morgan Rielly improving his all-around game; it says something about the sphinx-like T.J. Brodie’s quiet-but-crucial contributions; it says something about the elevation of (currently injured) Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren into NHL-worthy competitors.
Toronto’s goaltending is another area Leafs’ fans should be fairly excited about. While it’s true off-season free-agent signing Petr Mrazek has suffered misfortune and injury in his first few looks in a Leafs jersey, the Buds still have an amazing top goalie in Jack Campbell, and rookie Joseph Woll was great in his first four games at the NHL level, winning three times and posting a 2.76 goals-against average. He’s earned another look with the Leafs if, hockey gods forbid, injuries in net become a problem for Toronto.
Again, we all recognize that any regular-season achievement by the Leafs will wither in the fan and media fury that will follow another early-round playoff exit. Nothing short of one or two playoff series wins will be palatable for Toronto this spring. Major change could indeed still come.
But as things go, it’s a good time to be a Leafs fan, right? There’s nothing wrong with Leafs fans taking in great efforts and enjoying them while they’re there. Let them live in the moment, and appreciate Toronto as it continues its evolution.
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