Heading into the 2010-11 season, many NHL pundits predicted a much better season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That said, as much as the experts saw them improving, nobody saw the Buds roaring out to a 3-0 start to the season.
Last night the Maple Leafs outclassed the Pittsburgh Penguins to a final score of 4-3, giving them their first 3-0 start to a season since 1999-2000. Toronto now has sole possession of first place overall in the NHL standings (which has to have been just as long).
Given how poorly they have played in the past few seasons (finishing 29th in 2009-10, 24th in 2008-09 and 24th in 2007-08) it’s really no surprise that the Maple Leafs are emerging as a much-improved team; but a 3-0 start? Come on now!
Led by the scoring prowess of free-agent signing Clarke MacArthur (whose four goals is tied with Alexander Ovechkin's for the league lead); a hard-working, dangerous first line that features Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak and the improved special teams on both the penalty kill (fifth overall after the Pens match) and power play (15th overall after last night’s game); the Maple Leafs are making a believer out of everyone, even some of the haters.
Even the so-called "grinders" on the Maple Leafs roster are finding a way to contribute by making timely hits, avoiding senseless penalties and scoring timely goals, as Colton Orr (who opened the scoring against the Penguins) did on Wednesday night and Tim Brent (two goals on the season) has already done.
Making life easy for the Maple Leafs has been the stellar play of veteran goalie J.S. Giguere, who, despite not starting against the Penguins on Wednesday night, made some crucial saves against the Montreal Canadiens and looked very solid against the Ottawa Senators.
For the most part, the Maple Leafs are using the formula of team play to earn their wins, a concept that has been used successfully by many teams in the past.
Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who has often been criticized for his gruff nature and in-your-face tactics in the newspapers when criticizing players for their questionable play, has done a spectacular job early on of getting his troops to buy into the team concept. Based on the Maple Leafs' previous shortcomings on paper, appears to be the only way this squad can succeed.
One of the key strategies Wilson has implemented has been the Maple Leafs forecheck, which has been relentless. It seems everyone is buying in, including Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Kris Versteeg, Mike Brown and MacArthur.
On the back end, Luke Schenn has simplified his game and is looking a lot more like the impressive rookie he was in 2008-09 as opposed to the struggling sophomore he became last season.
Tomas Kaberle continues to play a steady mix of defense and offense, while Mike Komisarek and Dion Phaneuf have been the biggest physical presence on the back end thus far.
With wins against the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Maple Leafs have now beaten three of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from the 2009-10 season in succession, a feat that cannot be dismissed lightly by the doubters.
While it’s still early in the season, the first three games of the 2010-11 season have proved to be just what the doctor ordered for the Maple Leafs, especially when you consider the disastrous way the Leafs started the 2009-10 season, failing to register a win until their ninth game.
Confidence is a very powerful thing, and after winning their first three games, the Maple Leafs must feel pretty confident about their next match on Friday night against the New York Rangers, who sit with a record of 1-1 in their first two games.
With a few games yet to be decided tonight, the Maple Leafs currently sit third overall, averaging four goals per game, and sixth overall, averaging two goals against per game; a huge improvement on the 2009-10 season, when they finished 25th in goals for (2.56) and 29th in goals against (3.21).
I know it’s early, but if the Maple Leafs had gotten off to an 0-3 start, the critics (and perhaps rightfully so) would be all over them, calling for Ron Wilson’s head and for Brian Burke to be kicked out of the organization.
Maybe, with a few more wins, it will be time for Maple Leafs fans and doubters alike to finally admit that Burke and Co. have been doing a good job of changing the face of this team, and more importantly, the organization.
Slowly but surely, it appears as if the Maple Leafs are on the right track, and if the first three games are any indication, perhaps even on the right track for a playoff spot as early as this year.
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Until next time,