The Worst Is Over: Leafs Improved Play Has Team Brimming with Confidence

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst INovember 10, 2009

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 07: The Toronto Maple Leafs mob goaltender Jonas Gustavsson #50 following his 5-1 defeat against the Detrout Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre on November 7, 2009 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't—you are right."

For the majority of this young season in Leaf land, there has been an awful lot of "thinking you can't" going on, from both the team and their fans. With the losses piling up, the team's confidence at a minimum, and hope nowhere in sight, it looked as if the 2009-2010 season in Toronto would be a huge disappointment right from the start.

It was about as bad as it could be for the first three weeks, with their top two goalies injured, their new sniper still on the shelf from offseason surgery, and the latest acquisitions who were brought in to make the team better seemingly making the team worse.

Yes, the team hit rock bottom early and when it came to hoping for a playoff birth, almost anyone would have said they can't.

But things have changed in Leaf Nation over the span of two weeks, and as each game passes we are given a glimpse of what this team should have been from the start. No, they are not out of the hole yet as they still find themselves in the bottom three in the NHL - but third-last isn't last, and right now they'll take it.

The team has points in seven straight games, going 3-0-4 in that span, and having won their last two games look to continue the suddenly inspired play.

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The biggest reason why the attitude around the team has changed from "we can't" to "we can" comes in net, where a healthy Jonas Gustavsson is playing better every night, and no matter what President and GM Brian Burke says, has solidified himself as the team's starting goal tender.

When he suits up Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild at the ACC, it will be the first time all season a Leaf goalie has played in four straight games, and he certainly deserves it.

In his last five games he is 2-0-3, with a .927 save percentage, only allowing two goals or less in three of those games. Through the eight games that he has played, he has a .918 save percentage (12th in the NHL) and a 2.60 GAA (16th in the NHL) while only losing two games in regulation.

His puck handling has been questionable at times, as well as his rebound control, but for a goalie that is playing in his first NHL season, on smaller ice with different rules he's doing a pretty darn good job.

The addition of Phil Kessel to the lineup has also been a huge reason for the team’s recent success and in the three games he's been in they've gone 2-0-1. He has a goal and two assists while recording 16 shots on net. His insertion has also improved the play of his line mates as well.

Since starting on a line with Kessel, John Mitchell has scored his first two goals of the season after not tallying a goal in the first 13 games. Jason Blake has also looked reenergized and more confident with a fellow American sniper to skate with, and will no doubt pick up the scoring pace if he continues the same style of play.

He is well on his way to another big season if he and his line mates can keep up the pressure in the offensive zone. He is turning out to be the excellent injection to the lineup that the Leafs and their fans were hoping for; a lethal injection if you will.

One of the biggest questions of the early season struggles was how the defense would respond after taking a huge chunk of the blame for the team's poor play. Well, they have sure bounced back and shown that they can be responsible in their own end while chipping in offensively when need be.

Tomas Kaberle continues to play at a high pace having with 18 points to lead all defensemen in the NHL. Ian White has been sturdy in his own end while posting the only plus-rating on the Leafs blue line. And the "big three" who came in during the offseason (Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Garnet Exelby) have all improved their play and have each been a large reason for the team's overall improvement.

Much of the credit has got to go to Ron Wilson as well, who was taking some serious heat for the losses piling up early on. He stuck with it and maintained confidence in his troops that they could get the job done. He did everything he could to bring the team together and get them to believe that they could be a force to be reckoned with in the league.

Whatever it was that worked; Wilson finally has his team back and playing the way they should have since the start. The questions of whether or not he was the right coach for the team are quickly fading, as fans realize how important he is if the Leafs plan on playing more than 82 games this year.

Not only is the team confidence shining from the recent play, but the schedule remaining in November has got to be one that they look at and feel able to win a majority of.

After facing the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, the Leafs will also encounter the Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes, as well the New York Islanders. Before the month comes to an end they will also visit the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers; all games in which the team will have a legitimate chance at winning.

But with their recent success against imposing Western teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, there is no reason why this team should feel they can't hang with any team in the NHL right now, and they'll get their chance to prove it when the see the Blackhawks, Flames and Capitals as well before November ends.

Every team faces a rough patch during the season, and it's how they come out of it, as well as avoiding more than one of them, that decides how they play the rest of the way. The Leafs have had their rough patch, and must continue to get points now if they plan on playing past April.

There is no guarantee that the Leafs will become a solidified playoff contender from here on in, but with the improved play of a players creating a confident feel along with the less-than-stellar opponents in the near future, we could be talking about the fight for the playoff spot, rather than trying to avoid last place.

In a season full of "you can't", it's refreshing to see the Leafs finally showing the drive and passion they were missing only a few weeks ago.

And soon enough as their play improves; fans hope that they can say when it comes to playoff aspirations, "Yes, we can!"


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