You have got to love these Toronto Maple Leafs.
Oh, I realize this country is littered with Toronto haters from coast to coast. That’s OK. We need to look past that at a hockey club that has given a city everything it could ask for during this National Hockey League season. They are right in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff race that, just two months ago, very few predicted was even possible.
As December 2010 came to a close, the Leafs had 30 points. They sat 16 points behind the New York Rangers. They were 14 points behind the Montréal Canadiens who, at the time, occupied the coveted eighth spot in the East. Today, things are a little different.
Today, with 17 games remaining in their regular season, the Leafs have 67 points – four fewer than eighth-place Carolina. Over their last sixteen games, the Leafs have garnered 24 points out of a possible 32. That’s a .750 success percentage. And there are a couple big reasons for the Toronto resurgence.
Of course, the number one reason for the jump in the Leafs’ step is 22-year old netminder James Reimer. His .929 save percentage ranks him second in the league. His 2.28 goals-against ranks him seventh. Since February 1st, Reimer has only lost one game in regulation. At this point, Leafs’ fans have virtually forgotten that Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson are even with the club. That’s the impact Reimer has had.
If it’s possible, he plays even bigger than his 6’ 2” frame allows. The smoothness of his game puts one in mind of the great Ken Dryden. He was also very fluid for a big man. But it’s Reimer’s temperament that’s the key. Not too much thinking – always good for a goaltender. He forgets the games as quickly as he plays them. A short memory is one of a goaltender’s biggest assets.
The Leafs’ season has included high-scoring stretches from forwards Mikhail Grabovski (early December through late January) and Phil Kessel. The much-maligned right winger has eight goals in his last nine games. In Kessel’s case, that’s worth mentioning since he went 14 games without scoring from the middle of January until this streak started on February 15th in Boston.
And, during this recent playoff push, Leafs’ GM sent the last of the overrated floaters, Tomas Kaberle, out of town. There was lots of crying and morning the day he left town on February 18th. There isn’t much today. Maybe fans finally realized that this guy was an anchor, rather than a hot-air balloon. After the deal, Burke praised Kaberle for his time in Toronto. Nobody would have been surprised had Burke had his fingers crossed behind his back. So far, in Boston, Kaberle has contributed the princely sum of one assist in six games, with two shots on goal. You can have him, Boston!
Can the Leafs make the playoffs? They can. Will they? I’d give it 50/50. But it doesn’t matter. Frankly, when this season began, very few (me not included) figured this would be a throw-away year in Toronto. It hasn’t been. Brian Burke has done two very important things since this season began.
He got rid of the remaining dregs of a bygone Leafs’ era. Blue and White disease has been eradicated. And Burke has infused new life into this line-up. In fact, it’s that energy and exuberance that’s powering the team now, as it tries to bring home a coveted playoff spot.