|"The Leafs struggled earlier in the season, but has come together in recent weeks" -- Maple Leafs head coach John Ferguson.
Leave it to the Toronto Maple Leafs
to spoil a good party.
The 27th annual "What's Wrong With the Leafs?" luncheon will be held at a Toronto restaurant in a couple days and if the boys in blue can top their recent 5-1-1 streak with road victories tonight over the Atlanta Thrashers and tomorrow against the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night In Canada, there will be precious little downside to talk about at the negativity-in-perpetuity shindig.
Instead it will be: How 'bout that Bryan McCabe! Did you know Mats Sundin is winning 54 percent of his faceoffs and ranks eighth in NHL scoring? That Nik Antropov is a point-a-game player through 31 games? That Vesa Toskala has a 2.02 goals-against average over the past seven games? That Toronto, third-worst in goals allowed this season, has surrendered only 14 goals in those seven games while scoring 27? That only nine NHL teams have better records over the past 10 games? That only six NHL teams have fewer road losses?
"We're embarking on a seven-game road trip tonight. Let's see how that goes but we've been playing good hockey for the past couple of weeks," said Maple Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr.
If ever there was a time for a long road trip, this is it. Toronto is hot across the lineup and has moved into a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Only two of the upcoming opponents, the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers, have winning records over their past 10 games. Atlanta, Montreal, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders are all struggling a bit.
The Leafs struggled earlier in the season, but has come together in recent weeks, Ferguson said, adding that the best part is that there's no one reason. There are a lot of reasons.
"We're seeing more consistency, not just during games, but from game-to-game," Ferguson said. "It's been a combination of things, including really solid efforts from our goaltending. Nik Antropov has kicked back into gear and Mats Sundin continues to produce very well. Jason Blake has played very well and won a game for us the other night. Chad Kilger had a pair of goals when we beat the Lightning Monday. Antropov had a hat trick to help us beat the Rangers."
The Maple Leafs seem to be executing coach Paul Maurice's system better than at any time since he was hired a year ago. Recent Maple Leafs' games have featured a very low number of shots by both teams. They had only 15 shots Dec. 4 in a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators and 16 shots on Dec. 6 in their 6-2 triumph over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. On the other hand, the Maple Leafs have allowed 30 or fewer shots on goal in 12 of their last 15 games.
"Bryan McCabe has been playing very effective defense lately and has been playing more than 30 minutes a game," Ferguson said. "Tomas Kaberle's minutes are up, too, and he's been very productive. Hal Gill has been playing very, very well and we got Pavel Kubina back last week after missing 10 games. That really solidified things for us.
"It shows up in better defensive play and the goaltending has given our group some fresh confidence. Toskala made 34 saves in our 3-1 win over Nashville. That's the kind of game you need from the goaltender to have a good streak. We were outshot, but we won. We had a couple of games before that that we lost when we were outshot, but could have won. Toskala was the difference against Nashville and we need that."
While most league executives and coaches will tell you that team defense involves all six players on the ice, Ferguson said improved play in the Maple Leafs' defensive zone has been one of the biggest reasons for the winning streak.
"We've rededicated ourselves to taking care of our own zone," Ferguson said. "And we've been able to avoid the odd-man rushes."
Toskala was acquired from San Jose, along with forward Mark Bell, in June for a trio of draft picks. Ferguson said he has added a pleasant presence in the dressing room.
"He's a really good guy with a good sense of humor and a wry smile," said Ferguson. "He has an unflappable nature and a good level of confidence in himself and the team. It breeds confidence throughout the team."
Of course, it helps to have the puck. Toronto ranks 11th in faceoffs won. Kyle Wellwood has won 57 percent of his 133 faceoffs. Sundin has won 54 percent and Matt Stajan is at nearly 48 percent.
"Mats is out of this world at faceoffs and he's capable of doing that all year long," Ferguson said. "Kyle is much improved and Matt has shown a real commitment to getting better."
Ferguson was told that a hockey website that ranks players "hot" or "cold" on a daily basis, is listing his four centers, Sundin, Wellwood, Stajan and Kilger as "hot," along with right wingers Antropov, Blake and Boyd Devereaux.
"That's certainly the way we'd like to see it," he said. "I know Wellwood is just getting going after missing a lot of games at the start of the season so that's something else that's really encouraging."
Ferguson knows the NHL is well balanced this season and that points are hard to come by. He's pleased with the recent success, but knows a lot of hard work lies ahead and that players still have room for improvement.
"I know we need to be better on the penalty kill and the power play and we can be," he said. "But the big thing for me is goals against. With only 14 goals against in the last seven games, that's two a game. Now, we lost a game to Boston the other night, 2-1, and that will happen now and then, but when we hold the other team to two or fewer goals, we're in good position when we score as much as we do. We're the third-highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference, only a goal behind the leaders."