Toronto Maple Leafs fans undoubtedly jumped and screamed last night as if they'd secured a Stanley Cup after their club pulled off an improbable 4-3 come-from-behind win.
Now they must be asking themselves, where has this effort been all season long?
Starting, more or less, with their 5-0 thumping of the Senators in Ottawa on Monday, February 25th, the Leafs have been playing inspired hockey of late.
But many critics have made an interesting observation. This is the third consecutive season in which the Leafs have put together a charge late in the year, once all reasonable playoff hopes seemed to have vanished.
For the most part, this point is not debatable.
The Leafs did not look like a hockey club interested in making the playoffs during the early portion of the schedule and it cost them, especially in late December and early January.
However, it is also important to note that this year's version of the squad is slightly different than those of the two previous seasons.
Much of the credit for the resurgence has to go to the blue line. With Bryan McCabe missing serious time with a hand injury and Carlo Colaiacovo missing over half the season with knee injuries, the defense corps never got a chance to gel properly.
The removal of Hal Gill has allowed Anton Stralman to develop, perhaps a bit prematurely. But this is indicative of the direction in which the Leafs are looking to proceed—with youth.
If these six defensemen had been together all season long, the Leafs may not be on the outside looking in right now.
Most importantly, fans would never have had to witness the play of the lummox wearing No. 56.
In goal, Vesa Toskala has been playing like a man possessed. While receiving the same workload that Andrew Raycroft did last season, Toskala has been able to win games by himself—something Raycroft never seemed to be able to do.
Heading into the season, Leafs fans were excited about having two top-quality goaltenders to go to in troubled times to win games. However, Raycroft has been one of the biggest flops of the season.
To his credit, he got his only legitimate chance to steal the reigns in the December/January funk, when the entire team seemed to forget how to play and he seemed to shoulder all the blame. The club lost confidence in him, and coach Paul Maurice has had no reason to insert him again.
Raycroft will likely be bought out or traded at season's end and will be able to get a fresh start in a less intense hockey market where he can regain his form.
Up front, the Leafs have plenty of options going forward.
Jeremy Williams is proving he belongs in the NHL and will be joined next year by the likes of Kris Newbury and Robbie Earl, at the least. Russian prospect Nik Kulemin is also scheduled to cross the Atlantic and get a crack at the roster, which will finally include young players from beginning to end.
In order for this to happen though, the Leafs need to part ways with some of the junk.
Jason Blake, while playing better of late, may be more valuable as trade bait than as a member of the hockey club.
Alexei Ponikarovsky is showing that he may only be able to succeed with Mats Sundin at his side. Now, only two people can play with Sundin at a time, and one of them will be Nik Antropov.
That means either Ponikarovsky or Alex Steen may be shown the door during the offseason.
The Leafs' brass will also need to determine whether or not to give Kyle Wellwood a mulligan. His season has been a write-off for some time now, and if Wellwood can't prove he has the desire to get better, he may be wearing another uniform come October.
All in all, Leafs fans should be pleased with the effort their club has shown lately, with last night being the pinnacle. While it may be too late to make the playoffs, it gives fans hope for next season.
If the team finally admits that youth is the way to go, the ranks will be full of young players who want to win night in and night out. And that will certainly bode well for the future of the franchise.
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