John Mitchell played hero for the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, scoring the shootout-deciding goal in the Leafs wild 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. A frenetic game that saw big hits, nice goals, and huge saves at both ends, was buoyed by a boisterous crowd, most of which were wearing blue and white, and chanting "Go Leafs Go."
"It was unbelievable" said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "It was actually louder than it usually is at the Air Canada Centre."
Down 3-0 at one point, the Leafs got regulation goals from Jason Blake, John Mitchell, and Jeff Hamilton to tie the game. Hamilton and Mitchell also scored in the exciting six round shootout.
And while some people are complaining—Tank Nation I believe they call themselves—it is hard not to get excited about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and what they have accomplished this season.
A pessimist would point out that they are in the exact same spot as last year. And while this isn't necessarily untrue, there is a difference.
Last year's late season run was fueled by guys named Sundin, McCabe, Tucker, Wellwood, etc.
This year, we see guys like Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Jason Blake, Jeff Hamilton, and Ian White leading the charge.
You see, the Maple Leafs may not have the prospect depth they so desire, at least not yet anyway. They do, however, have some other intangibles, ones that have made this season a success, no matter the draft position.
First off is the coaching.
Ron Wilson, Rob Zettler, Tim Hunter, and Keith Acton...All of whom deserve a ton of credit for what they have done with a team many predicted would be worst in the league by now.
Their strong expertise, combined with their years of experience and never-say-die attitude has been both helpful and infectious to the players on the roster throughout the entire season.
They may be hard asses at times, but when the day is done, these four men are guys these players want to play for. They want to work hard for. They respect these guys, and having a coach like Ron Wilson has done wonders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wilson has made a history of taking the reigns of bad teams, and coaching them to overachieve, and succeed. It looks early on, like his time in Toronto will be no different.
Second is the management staff.
Led, of course, by Brian Burke, the Maple Leafs have established a front office that could rival some of the league's best, if it doesn't already. Burke's right-hand man Dave Nonis is joined by Joe Nieuwendyk, Cliff Fletcher, Jeff Jackson, and Al Coates.
Coates, a bright mind in his own right, recently left the Leafs' organization.
Still, it is a bright management group that combined with the coaching staff, has years of knowledge and wisdom for which to work with.
Then you have the team itself.
You have a couple of goalies that Leafs Nation is pretty well split down the middle on in Vesa Toskala and Justin Pogge.
Can either be a quality NHL starter? Was Vesa's bad season only a product of bad health? Can Justin Pogge find the consistency to be an NHL goalie.
For the record, I feel Toskala will bounce back. And while I am not completely sold on Pogge as I once was, there is still some reason to believe he can make the jump eventually.
Then you have the defense and forwards. There won't be much turnaround with the back end for Toronto. Of all their defenseman, Sifers, Reitz, and Oreskovic are the only players without contracts for next year.
All three are restricted free agents.
And so, barring a trade—which is a big possibility—the Leafs' blueline is intact for next year.
And while the Maple Leafs' defense hasn't been fantastic, it has been a decent group, one that has suffered through injuries for most of the year. Still, the Leafs are, or were at one point, close to the league lead for fewest shots against.
There is every reason to believe that another year to develop and come together as one, big, healthy unit will do wonders for them.
The forwards have been decent this year for Toronto as well. Like the rest of the team, they have had their off nights where they were non-existent, but have also had, for the most part, a solid year.
Young guns like Stajan, Mitchell, Kulemin, and Grabovski, were helped on the front line by productive veterans Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman, and newcomer Jeff Hamilton (who is 31 years old).
Still, aside from their stats, there is one thing this group of Leafs has that can't be taught, nor can it be bought.
A never-say-die attitude. A never-give-up bravado. A no-quit mandate. Whatever you want to call it, the Maple Leafs have it.
There were games this season where they looked like they weren't even trying. That's a simple thing called inconsistency, and the only way to improve upon that is to just keep trying, and keep playing the games like you know how.
Having heart can do wonders for a team, particularly one who isn't overflowing with talent, much like the Leafs.
It's a Jeff Finger shot block. It's a Luke Schenn fight after a teammate was taken advantage of; it's Mikhail Grabovski flying back on the back-check, diving to break up a two-on-one.
It's heart. And it's a key ingredient in the future of this hockey club. Combine the heart, and the effort, with a little more consistency in scoring, and a healthy goalie, and the future looks brighter every day for this team.
Oh, and that so called bare prospects cupboard? Well, it isn't as undernourished as one is led to believe, but that's another story, for another day.