Toronto Maple Leafs: 5-Step Plan to Maintaining Early Success
The Toronto Maple Leafs are at it again.
Two wins in three games to start the season, and their one loss was a nail-biter.
As per usual, Toronto is off to a nice start. Beating the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night in Pittsburgh by a score of 5-2 proves that this Leafs team can compete for a playoff spot in the postseason.
James Reimer looked great in net, despite allowing two goals (though it's still debatable just how bad those goals were). The defense is still lost sometimes, but seems to be growing into head coach Randy Carlyle's system, and the first three lines are all creating chances upfront.
Now it's up to the Leafs to do something that they haven't managed to do in nearly a decade: put together a full season and earn a playoff berth.
Here's a five-step plan for the Leafs to keep the good times rolling.
1. Stay Healthy
This first key applies to every team in the league, but it applies to the Maple Leafs more than most teams right now, as they've already lost one of their best players in Joffrey Lupul.
After taking a shot to the forearm in Wednesday night's contest, it was reported that Lupul will be out with a fractured forearm:
Correction: Lupul has a fractured forearm. #TSN— SportsCentre (@SportsCentre) January 24, 2013
While the loss certainly doesn't help Toronto, it's doesn't mean this team isn't a playoff contender.
From here on out, however, Toronto will need to stay healthy and avoid sending many more key players to the injured reserve. After all, a team can deal with an injury to a player or two, but if too much of the core is out, it just becomes too hard to find ways to win.
2. Stay Aggressive Between the Pipes
Three games into the season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have surrendered one goal, two goals and two goals in their first three matchups.
Both goaltenders have a goals against average of 2.00 or lower and a save percentage that sits at .929 or higher.
Sure, the Leafs have only played three games, but let's not take anything away from Ben Scrivens and James Reimer.
Both goaltenders have made some exceptional saves and have kept the Leafs in each and every game.
Their success hasn't been a coincidence, either.
Toronto's goalies have been much more aggressive this season, coming out and challenging opponents and cutting down angles more frequently than they have in the past.
For Reimer especially, the concept of staying aggressive is crucial to success. When healthy, he's always been a very good netminder, and Leafs fans had an opportunity to witness that last night, when Reimer put on a show in Steel Town.
The early save on a Pittsburgh 2-on-1 break exemplified exactly what Reimer needs to do to be successful. Square yourself to the puck, trust your defenseman to take the pass and cut down the angle for the shooter.
If you're a Leafs fan and aren't somewhat more comfortable with our goaltending situation at this point, I don't know what else you're looking for.
3. Avoid Making Simple Errors
This is the big one for Toronto.
Every year it seems like the Leafs, more so than any other team, find ways to hand their opponents goals on a silver platter.
Whether it's a soft goal let in by their goalie, boneheaded turnovers in their own zone, or a propensity to take silly penalties while having one of the worst penalty kills in the league, Toronto's done it all.
If the Maple Leafs expect to continue winning hockey games, Toronto needs to avoid these kinds of mental errors.
Take Wednesday's game against the Penguins.
Their second goal was a byproduct of an ill-timed pinch-in from Mike Kostka, a brutal giveaway from Mikhail Grabovski and a case of extremely poor defensive play from Dion Phaneuf.
Oh, and the goal wasn't the greatest either, which can be pinned, somewhat, on James Reimer (though any Sidney Crosby breakaway is tough to deal with).
With Randy Carlyle now at the helm, you can be sure that the Leafs will not only pay for these mental lapses on the scoreboard, but in practice as well.
4. Continue to Pressure Teams on Offense with Three Different Lines
Coming into the season, Leafs fans had high hopes for former top picks James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri.
Well, three games in, they haven't disappointed.
Before Toronto's tilt in Pittsburgh, the second line had been a bit of a disappointment, but they bounced back in a big way on Wednesday, combining for eight points and looking dominant in the offensive zone.
With Grabovski, van Riemsdyk and Nikolai Kulemin now on track, Toronto boasts one of the most potent attacks out there.
The top line will always be dangerous with Phil Kessel posing a threat, while Toronto's second line looks like they're back to being a trio for whom opponents will have to game-plan.
And don't count out the third line, centered by Nazem Kadri, who's ability to handle the puck is second to none on this squad, and Leo Komarov, who applies constant pressure on the forecheck.
When your third line is able to generate as many quality scoring chances as Toronto's has thus far, your team has some major promise. And not only does it help when it comes to scoring goals, but with three lines able to keep the puck in the attacking zone, it also alleviates some pressure for the defensemen and goaltenders, which is also beneficial for Toronto.
If the Leafs want to see the wins continue to pile up, they'll need to ensure that all three lines continue to play at an elevated level.
Having multiple players go on scoring droughts simultaneously can kill a season. Just ask the 2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs.
5. Work on Special Teams
For the last five years now, Toronto has been known as a team with a potent power-play attack, but an abysmal record on killing penalties.
Three games into the 2013 regular season, the Leafs have got their special teams rankings backwards.
Right now they sit eighth in the penalty-killing department, having fended off 84.6 percent of opponents' power-play chances, yet they're 19th in the league on the power play, cashing in on just 20 percent of their own opportunities.
That may not seem all that bad, but keep in mind, two of those power-play goals came against the Montreal Canadiens, who are one of the league's worst teams when they're a man short.
If the Leafs can retain a top-10 position on the penalty kill and become more effective when on the man advantage, this team will finally be a truly balanced hockey club.
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