A little more than a half-day after an impressive 1- 0 overtime win against the New Jersey Devils, the Maple Leafs were a confident group as they assembled for practice Friday and while the phenomenal performance of goaltender Frederik Andersen is one of a few key reasons for Toronto's success and their five-game win streak, there are other factors at play.
For one thing, the Leafs players in front of Andersen are playing a better game on the defensive end and as head coach Mike Babcock said, they're still a ways away from being at their collective peak.
"I think we've still given up shots, but we've given up way less high-quality scoring chances, especially early," Babcock said Friday. "So that's been positive…In saying all that, though, we've got a long way to go. We're not playing at the top of our game; we'd like to play better, and spend more time in the O zone, break out more efficiently."
The Leafs were without the services of centre Auston Matthews for the fourth consecutive game in Thursday's victory over New Jersey, but Toronto continued to improve its structure in its own zone, and they were opportunistic on offence when chances presented themselves. Winger William Nylander scored the only goal of the night when he beat Devils goalie Cory Schneider with 2.2 seconds left in overtime, but the Buds had better offensive opportunities throughout the game and only a strong showing by Schneider stopped Toronto from winning in regulation.
That willingness to let the chances come to them, and not play a high-risk, high-reward game, is the way the Leafs want to play all season.
"I think it's just a matter of us being patient," blueliner Morgan Rielly said. "There was times during (Thursday's) game when there was a lot of whistles, and not a lot of room for our guys to get going and play offence. Once we get used to that, once we accept the fact that's going to be what it is on a night-to-night basis…the more we're able to do that every night and get used to winning these close games, I think the better it's going to be."
That said, Andersen deserves kudos for battling through a challenging stretch last month. The veteran posted his second shutout of the season Thursday, stopping 41 of 42 shots and earning the first star of the game. He's won five of his past six games and has been poised and technically-sound in all situations, including a penalty kill that turned aside all three Devils man advantages Thursday night.
The 28-year-old Andersen credits goalie coach Steve Briere's work with him as beneficial, and also is pleased his teammates are taking the time to cut down on high-grade scoring chances. The combination has his confidence peaking.
"You feel more aggressive on the puck," Andersen said of the difference in his play when he's feeling more confident. "When you feel like it's not going your way, you want to fight your way out of it, and I think that's been a big difference for me."
"Freddie's been great," added Rielly. "We have lots of confidence in him. We know what he can do back there. When he's feeling it, you definitely feel a bit more confident, and a bit more willing to create offence when you know he's back there holding down the fort."
Toronto's tilt against the arch-rival Canadiens is going to be a passionate affair, particularly given the fact Montreal has faced recent struggles struggled and is looking to climb the Eastern Conference standings. The Leafs have also had a tougher go of it on the road, so they'll be aiming to improve in that department.
All things considered, it's shaping up to be an important Saturday night between the two Original Six clubs and one that's likely to be similar to the Devils battle.
"I just expect it'll be a tight-checking game," Babcock said of Saturday's game. "They're a team that needs points, we're a team that needs points. We got a good game in there last time we played. There was no space, (and) I don't expect there'll be any space tomorrow. You've just got to be patient and enjoy that."
With no guarantee as to the return of Auston Matthews from injury the Leafs will need to play smart and disciplined regardless of who's on the ice.
"We'd love to have (Matthews) back," Babcock said. "We'd like to have everybody on deck, but that's not how the league works, so you've got to find a way to win games no matter who's in."