Toronto Maple Leafs 2011: 5 Keys to Winning Competitive Northeast Division

Anthony Antonacci@nacci_Contributor IIIOctober 13, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs 2011: 5 Keys to Winning Competitive Northeast Division

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    With a maximum of four points earned in the past two games, the Toronto Maple Leafs currently are tied for the lead in the Northeast Division, a division that they have only won once since it was created in the 1998-1999 season.

    The Leafs are in tough this year, especially with the suddenly free-spending Buffalo Sabres ready to prove themselves and the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins fortifying their reputations as perennial playoff contenders. History has also taught us that the Montreal Canadiens should never be discounted either.

    They also have that whole “no playoffs since the lockout” streak going on as well.

    However, the goal for the Leafs should be to think big and win their division, no matter how realistic that chance might be.

    Here are five things that could make that happen.

5. Beat the Ottawa Senators

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators will play each other six times this season. This is an incredible opportunity.

    Naysayers can say whatever they want about the Leafs' playoff situation, but the truth is that the Sens' situation is much worse.

    The Sens finished dead last in the Northeast Division in 2010-2011 and will be putting out a lineup that is even more inexperienced this year, with rookies such as Mika Zebanejad, Jared Cowan and Stephane Da Costa receiving more playing time. 

    The Leafs can pick up a total of 12 points from this team. That’s a little over 1/10 of the amount of points the Bruins had in winning the division last year. They need to take advantage.

4. Superior Goaltending from James Reimer

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    Optimus Reim was a revelation last year for the Leafs, winning 20 games out of 37 played to go along with a 2.60 GAA, a .921 SV percentage and three shutouts.

    Most importantly, he gave the Maple Leafs what they needed most: a dependable starting goalie.

    When it became clear that a tandem of Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson was not going to be enough to be competitive, Reimer took control of the job. It was a no-brainer decision to anoint him the starting goaltender for this year.

    Reimer needs to prove that he can play at that same level for an entire season.

3. Firepower from Unexpected Sources

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    Last season, the Leafs had only four players that scored 20 or more goals: Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. They also only scored 218 goals in total, ranking 23rd out of 30 teams.

    This season, they’ll need more.

    Players like Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi need to step up and provide consistent goal support.

2. Own the Shootout

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    The Leafs have never had a winning record in shootouts since it was first introduced in 2005.

    The closest they came was in the 2009-2010 season, when their record was 4-4. Otherwise, their all time record in shootouts is 25 wins, 35 losses.

    This needs to change.

    Whether you agree with having shootouts or not, they’re currently a part of the game. Every year the Leafs have dropped points in shootouts that would drastically change their final seeding. They need to find a way to come through in these clutch situations.

1. The Power Play Must Come Alive

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    The Leafs’ power play was ranked 22nd last year with a 16 percent efficiency rating. This was an improvement from the 2009-2010 season, when they were the worst in the league.

    This upward trend needs to continue.

    Newcomers John-Michael Liles and Tim Connolly (when he returns from injury) must help this movement along, as they both have the vision and passing skills that are necessary for a successful power play unit.

    The post-lockout NHL has become a landscape in which the power play has utmost importance. Consider the fact that no team with a power play ranking of less than 20th has made it to the Stanley Cup Finals since 2005.

    If the Leafs want to win the Northeast Division, the improvement of their power play must become their top priority.