5 Biggest Reasons Toronto Maple Leafs Should Be Confident About 2013 Playoffs
With the Toronto Maple Leafs having clinched their first berth to the postseason in nearly a decade with a 4-1 victory over their archrival Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the team and its fans are riding high.
And with good reason.
This is by far the most complete team that Toronto has seen in quite some time.
In fact, it shouldn't come as a major surprise to anybody if the Maple Leafs even manage to win a series or two in the playoffs.
Here are the five biggest reasons for Toronto fans to "beleaf."
It feels like it's been forever since the Leafs have had a legitimate No. 1 goaltender.
This season, however, James Reimer has solidified his position as Toronto's top netminder.
2013 has been a monumental year for Reimer, with him posting a .926 save percentage, which, as of now, is the best save percentage posted by any goalie in Toronto's history, with at least 25 games played.
Furthermore, Reimer has been great lately, with a .939 save percentage this month and save percentages of .973, 1.000, .868 and .980 in his last four.
Seems like he's getting hot at the right time.
Another aspect of Toronto's game that has drastically improved is the penalty kill.
For years, Toronto was relegated to the bottom of the table when it came to penalty-killing percentage.
A perennial bottom-feeder, the Maple Leafs brought in penalty-killing specialist Jay McClement this past offseason, and he, along with new head coach Randy Carlyle's most defensive-minded game plan, has resulted in phenomenal results.
This season, Toronto's penalty kill ranks among the top three in the league, less than one percentage point behind the league-leading Ottawa Senators.
We all know that killing penalties successfully is crucial in hockey, and the fact that Toronto ranks among the NHL's elite in that department should have Leafs fans excited.
The Leafs have never been a team that's struggled to score.
For the past several seasons, the team's problem has been its defense and goaltending.
Luckily, despite the addition of a coach who emphasizes defense at the end of last season, Toronto's offensive attack is still ranked among the league's best.
For the 2013 season, Toronto is once again in the top tier of all NHL teams, scoring an average of 3.07 goals per game, good for fourth in the league.
Led by Phil Kessel, who has already guaranteed his second consecutive season averaging at least a point per game, and newcomer James van Riemsdyk, who leads the team in goals with 18 (two ahead of Kessel), Toronto's offense hasn't missed a beat.
Then there's Joffrey Lupul who's returned from his second injury of the season, Nazem Kadri, who has slumped recently but still had a breakout year, and Dion Phaneuf, who is one of the top scoring defensemen in the NHL.
With Toronto being one of the youngest clubs in the NHL, leadership isn't exactly something that comes first to most people's minds.
But Dion Phaneuf (the captain), along with Jay McClement and Joffrey Lupul (his alternates) are all veteran players, with all three having logged some playoff games at one point or another (though McClement has only played four games himself).
With McClement being the ideal leader when it comes to work ethic, Lupul being your ideal energy guy and Phaneuf being such a workhorse, I think some people may underestimate the leadership that this team possesses.
Then there's head coach Randy Carlyle, who's won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks and should be credited with much of this team's turnaround this year.
The final reason for Toronto to feel confident heading into the postseason, which will begin in just over a week, is its first-round opponent.
At this point, Toronto is expected to finish as the fifth-place team in the Eastern Conference (its remaining schedule includes the bottom-feeder Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, as well as the Montreal Canadiens). That means the Leafs will play either the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens.
As I alluded to in the introduction slide, both of those teams are far from infallible.
The Bruins, are only 10-9-2 over the course of their last 21 games, averaging just 2.48 goals per game over that span.
As for Montreal, it's dropped four of its last five games, losing by at least two goals in each of those four losses and allowing at least five goals in those four defeats.
While Toronto had hit a bit of a rough patch before re-grouping and taking down the streaking Ottawa Senators, there is still plenty to be excited about in Leafs Nation.