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Leafs Closing In On .500 Mark

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Ok, let’s get this out of the way.

If the Leafs beat the suddenly-respectable Phoenix Coyotes Wednesday at Air Canada Centre, they could move into a share of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Could. There are strings aplenty. The eighth place Montreal Canadiens would own  the spot because they hold more wins. The Habs are in New Jersey on Wednesday and there are four teams logjammed at 31 points: the Leafs, Rangers, Flyers and Panthers.

Still. You should know: the light you see up ahead in the tunnel may not be a train after all.

Let’s chew on this. If the Leafs can gain wins against the Coyotes and then Friday in Buffalo, (that’s a pretty significant if) they would stand at 14-14-7.

Yes,  friends, .500 after winning precisely one of the first 13 games.

It would be a year, nearly to the day, that the Leafs were, by the peculiar math of the NHL, a .500 team.  December 20.  They beat Pittsburgh 7-3 in PA.

That the team could be in playoff position by the New Year contravenes all logic. The prevailing thought was that if the Leafs could whittle their deficit down to something manageable, say eight points by Christmas, they could gain two or three points a month and make things close at the end.

Instead things are close right now.

It doesn’t take a genius to tell you why. For that reason, I am the perfect choice.

Mike Komisarek’s first-star showing in Monday’s 3-2 win over Ottawa exemplified a stiffening Leafs defence. Garnet Exelby and Jeff Finger, in and out of the lineup this season, have been fine when called upon. Tomas Kaberle’s offence has cooled but he is essentially the same player he has always been and Ian White has been numbingly consistent. Francois Beauchemin has been good as well and Luke Schenn, scratched for the second consecutive game Monday isn’t the only rearguard in waiting. Carl Gunnarsson was winning praise before an elbow injury  knocked him out of the lineup.

Based on his play earlier this season and his patchwork performances last year, Vesa Toskala’s matriculation has been nothing short of stunning. He has morphed into the goalie he was in San Jose which seemed unlikely when he left the lineup with groin issues November 23.

Jason Blake’s trust in his teammates’ ability to get him the puck back and his stint on the fourth line has left him re-energized.

Phil Kessel has had a similar effect on Matt Stajan who has five goals over the last 10 games. Kessel, meanwhile is tied for the team lead with two game-winning goals and his talent, showcased by Monday’s dazzling wrister, is absolutely staggering.

The Maple Leafs, whether they reach .500 this week or next month, are a substantially better club than they were last season. With 11 free agents, including Toskala, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Stajan, they can pick and choose when to promote promising youngsters Nazem Kadri and Viktor Stalberg or ease Jonas Gustavsson into the number one role. Their future is in their hands.

The Leafs of course are miles away from being an elite team. They have struggled mightily to get this far and it will take just as much work and commitment to keep going. Winners of seven of their last 10, they won’t sustain anything near that kind of pace and a fallback and further assaults toward the post-season are challenges that await.

But for the first time, nearly a season and a half into Ron Wilson’s tenure and a little less than that into Brian Burke’s, you get the idea.

They know what they are doing. There is a plan. 
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