Toronto Maple Leafs Turning Corner Toward a Playoff Run

Graeme BoyceCorrespondent INovember 22, 2010

Flying toward a goal
Flying toward a goalBruce Bennett/Getty Images

Playing collectively very well and dominating the Dallas Stars, despite Joey Nieuwendyk showcasing soon-to-be free agent Brad Richards, the Maple Leafs are really starting to gel. 

As we now are officially heading into the holiday season, beginning this weekend with Thanksgiving stateside, the Leafs have begun to click on all cylinders. 

Winning hockey is fun hockey, and on a winning note, the team will enjoy a few days to hone before facing Buffalo on Friday while still awaiting the return of Colby Armstrong and Dion Phaneuf

With Armstrong's return imminent, John Mitchell's days are numbered, but the situation on the blue line is a difficult choice.  But hopefully Phaneuf has been watching and learning, because his understudies don't shoot the puck over the net.

Although the team couldn't buy a goal in Montreal, Nikolai Kulemin finally displayed his goal scoring prowess against the Stars.  It's obvious this is the nose-to-the-net focus got him drafted in the first place. 

Speaking of prowess, it occurred to me after Colton Orr handily won his bout of the evening that if the NHL wanted to eliminate fighting then they'd simply allow the clock to keep running during the fight.  Well, thinking about it, perhaps the rule change would simply deliver more knockout punches upfront.

And speaking of goal scoring, Tyler Bozak, who has deserved a few more this season, potted a great goal on a nice hard shot—after another fine pass from linemate Nazem Kadri.

Looking quite comfortable in a Leafs uniform, Kadri, who by now has had the conversation with Ron Wilson in the wake of Don Cherry's comments made during the Habs game, with respect to Kadri's "nasty habits," showed us again the gifted passing ability that Phil Kessel dearly needs.

Unfortunately, Kessel found himself in Wilson's doghouse during the second period.  With the early part of the season behind us, the Toronto Maple Leafs and a few more good bounces going there way would have a few more points and likely in the thick of playoff contention.  Alas, it's been a frustrating start, I'll admit, as we've seen our fair share of ups and downs in the wins and losses category. 

Individually, most nights the players have shown us gritty forechecking, effective defending, solid goaltending and decent special teams.  But the Leafs are not able to score in a timely manner, such as when given extra man opportunities. 

Given their outburst against Dallas, our forwards don't seem as trepidatious as in previous seasons, offering an extra pass that more often than not takes away a scoring chance to take a shot at the net.

Naming names, I'd say Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg and Nikolai Kulemin have each shown offensive flashes of brilliance over the past few months. 

In that same time period, Luke Schenn, Tomas Kaberle and Fracois Beauchemin have shown great support for a rotation of various defenders.  As well, you can't deny the gustle (gutsy hustle) of Colton Orr, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Brown.

While reflecting on the decisive victory against Dallas, I thought about the missing on-ice ingredient in a winning franchise: Consistency. 

There certainly must be universal and fundamental principles that govern coaching success stories: Control the puck and put it in the back of their net more than your opponent.  Back in the day, early professional hockey coaches must have developed strategies to take back the puck, if control is lost, and eliminate players who control the puck.

A while ago, brought about by television broadcasters, we discussed the emergence of shot blocking expertise, apparently a worthy stat, and so I'm noticing the Leafs defense these days truly blocking shots with efficiency, rather than the good ol' days of deflecting pucks off sticks and hoping for the best. 

More often than not, those pucks were deflected past hapless Toronto goaltenders over the past several decades. 

The other thing the Leafs aren't doing as much these days is taking penalties.  They are staying out of the penalty box and being rewarded; they are actually improving. 

In my opinion, they have turned the corner and will eye a playoff spot once Brian Burke brings in a top-six scoring machine.