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Despite Record, Leafs Are In A Better Place

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Change has found the Toronto Maple Leafs and just in time.

Backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson will play in Tampa Bay on Wednesday while incumbent Vesa Toskala takes a couple of games to tend to an injured groin muscle.

Christian Hanson, the second highest point getter among American Hockey League rookies and the Marlies’ top scorer will slide into John Mitchell’s spot. The veteran centre has been sidelined with a knee injury for six weeks.

The Leafs, you may have heard, are enduring one of the most confounding streaks in anyone’s memory.

How to explain a team that does so many things so right, a team that comes off the mat so frequently only to walk into a haymaker.

Lost in the 61-shot 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders are a number of puzzling truths.

First, can you feel terrible about getting a point after you rallied from a 3-0 lead?

Second, how can you infer a lack of effort on offence when the Leafs lead the NHL in shots.

That isn’t necessarily talent, standing 23rd in goals per game speaks to a profound lack of finish, but you can’t accuse the Leafs of mailing in the offence.

Third, you’ve got to admit they’ve got a little game.

Consider this. The Leafs opened the season by pelting 46 shots at Carey Price, only to lose 4-3 in overtime.

On Oct. 30, they outshot the Sabres 16-5 in the third period but still lost 3-2 in overtime.

On Halloween, they rallied to score twice in the game’s final moments against Montreal and then lost in the shootout.

On November 14, they lost 3-2 to Ottawa, outshooting the Sens 15-4 in the third.

And yet when it came time to storm the Islanders net, despite a pretty long list of recent results that would speak to the futility of it all, the Leafs didn’t quit. It seems to be their way.

In fact, they have outscored their opponents 24-19 in the third period.

I don’t fool myself into believing this is a great team and neither should you.

But consider this. This season the Leafs have added a first-line gunner in Phil Kessel, another top six defenceman in Carl Gunnarsson, a potential front-line goalie in Gustavsson as well as the top jewel of their farm system in Hanson.

Still to come are Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and rangy Slovakian defenceman Juraj Mikus who is quickly working his way up the order.

Leafs GM Brian Burke insists that if results don’t follow soon, demotions to the Marlies will be made to clear the deck for more movement and player acquisition.

You find hope in the most unlikely places, even with a team that seems to chew through it.

And so I will tell you what seems impossible to believe.

The Leafs are better than last year, despite their lowly place in the standings.

I always find it handy to use an obtuse botanical metaphor for these things.

You can’t see the roots of a sapling spreading under the ground.

You can see the little tree buffeted by the elements.

The obvious bad weather makes what you can’t see, the root system, stronger.
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