John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and hockey for over 30 years. He now is the editor of Leafs Game Day, the official program of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
November 7, 2006
(TORONTO) - The Toronto Maple Leafs are approaching the quarter pole in the 2006-07 NHL season with an exciting style that is winning over even their severest critics. Surely you've noticed it, haven't you?
Why, it was less than two weeks ago when the Leafs were twice badly beaten by the Ottawa Senators that the laments were loud and literally way off base. It was a knee-jerk reaction with short-term thinking. The Leafs, under a new head coach in Paul Maurice, needed more than 11 games at that time in order for a full assessment to be made.
So what's happened since losing to Ottawa 6-2 and 7-2? Facing a top-heavy schedule, the Leafs won five of their next six. They did it in thrilling fashion. They did it with much improved defence. They did it with commitment and they did it as a team with virtually everyone finding a way to make that possible.
If winning means a market devoid of all the turmoil, the Leafs will take it. And, if they continue to grow and play with flair they've shown to date, they're going to make it a very interesting - and pleasing season - for Leafs Nation.
GM John Ferguson's game plan for this season appears to be on track. Maurice, Ferguson's choice to lead the ship, has brought a different approach that is taking hold. Andrew Raycroft has been sizzling hot in goal, capping his run nicely with wins over Atlanta, Tampa, Buffalo and Philadelphia. What occurred for him last season in Boston is ancient history and all he cares about is what he's doing NOW.
The same thing applies to Hal Gill. His experience, long reach and shot-blocking were supposed to be huge assets and they have been. Okay, so he's not the smoothest guy on the ice, but he works hard and gets the job done.
Michael Peca has been a standout and a boost, particularly on penalty-killing situations. The Leafs have allowed only one goal while two-men short so far this season. Give credit to the likes of Raycroft, Gill, Peca, Sundin and all the other penalty killers for that incredible rate of success because every time they shut things down, they gain momentum.
Darcy Tucker has found a way to contribute early in the season.
Darcy Tucker is scoring goals on the power play. So how come his even-strength play has been questioned in some quarters? Today's NHL is a power play/penalty kill league more than ever and if guy scores on the power play those goals still count, don't they?
Regardless of whatever line combination Maurice is employing, everything is working right now. He's adjusting with every game situation. That's why Sundin has been working with either Kyle Wellwood or Nik Antropov on his right side. If Maurice needs speed and skill to offset challenges like the Sabres, he sends Sundin out there with Wellwood. If the coach requires size and skill to combat squads like the Flyers, he puts Antropov out there with Sundin.
Defensively, the Leafs have coped with injuries and breaking in some kids who've performed beyond expectations. Gill and Ian White, Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, Brendan Bell and Wade Belak, whatever mix Maurice tabbed for duty on the blue line in this recent stretch has delivered. Now, Pavel Kubina returns from injury and another component Ferguson brought in to make the Leafs a tougher team to play will be in place.
At this stage, everyone on the roster is settling into a role and the unity is shown by unselfish acts. For instance, there was Alex Steen against the Flyers bypassing a shot at the empty net to feed Kaberle for the easy clincher. That's another reason why Steen, at the tender age of 22, is a keeper.
Or how about Sundin? Maurice continues to rave about how much he admires his captain and what a tremendous team player and leader he is. Sundin scores his 500th goal and he applauds the fans. His official ceremony honouring the accomplishment is brief and tastefully done. Then, in typical Sundin fashion, it's drop the puck, get on and play the game. The youngsters down the middle, Matt Stajan and John Pohl, only stand to gain by the exposure to the seasoned Sundin and Peca.
After a rocky start at home, the Leafs are now getting their share of points at Air Canada Centre while performing far better on the road this season than they did a year ago.
"We knew for sure that our play at home was unacceptable to date and really wanted to help turn things around," Peca said after the 4-2 win over Atlanta on October 30.
That came 48 hours after another key point in the season - the 5-4 shootout win at Montreal which came on the heels of the double losses to Ottawa.
So, the Leafs are now 17 games into the season and they've done a marvelous job of bringing control of their destiny in their own hands. Are they Stanley Cup contenders? Well, it's still far too early to tell because the building process continues.
But what is happening now is headed in the right direction and positive stuff, all right. All they have to do to keep things that way is to keep right on winning.