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Leafs Have Come A Long Way

Saturday, 12.03.2011 / 9:47 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog

 
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It took 69 games but we now know who the Toronto Maple Leafs are.

They were a goal less than Eastern Conference power Philadelphia, Thursday.

Saturday they were a goal better than the streaking Buffalo Sabres. Entering the most important period of their season, the Leafs gave the visitors all they wanted. Then they gave them a little bit more, outscoring the Sabres 2-0 in the third and absolutely dominating them along the way.

Phil Kessel had the winner. Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski had the others but you knew all that already.

The Leafs 4-3 win means they will continue to be members of a merry six-team klatch chasing two playoff spots. Their roommates are in no particular order the Rangers, Devils, Sabres, Thrashers and Hurricanes.

The victory over Buffalo brought the Maple Leafs to within four points of the promised land with 13 games to play. It also extends the number of meaningful games the league’s third-youngest team can accrue.  That’s what makes every win so fruitful. From the moment the Leafs crested by narrowing a 14-point deficit to four, they have been playing with house money.

As long as they win, the games still matter.

It turns out the Leafs are better than they seemed all season, better than would have been believed only a few weeks ago. Saturday’s win represented high tide, not just because they won but because with the season in peril, the only thing the Maple Leafs did not do to the Sabres was pee on their legs on the way by.

“We didn’t have many options,” captain Dion Phaneuf said when asked about what was said in the second intermission. “We knew we had to throw everything at them and we did.”

But no matter what happens from now on, when they turn out the lights on the regular season a month from now, the Leafs will pack away substantial riches.

A game-changing second line, Clarke MacArthur with Nikolai Kulemin and Grabovski, has materialized from nowhere. Kulemin, in particular, seems certain to be a Selke winner.  Grabovski’s goal was his 27th. He looked like a throw in waiting to happen before the season started.

Two cast-iron defensive pairings, Dion Phaneuf with Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson are set. It wasn’t long ago that Schenn was considered a giant question mark (well, not literally) and Phaneuf’s game seemed stuck between mistakes. Phaneuf, in particular has been excellent through the Leafs recent run. He is an unusual player, not yet recovered from an incomprehensible decline. The player who will work the blue line for the next few years is not the stud defenceman who hit Calgary like a comet. He is however, active, engaged and it seems more able to affect a game in different ways than the standard rocket from the blue line and tooth jarring bodycheck.

Unproven plumbers Mike Brown, Tim Brent, Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce are now proven.

A team carried largely by the goaltending of James Reimer has watched the float dip in the tank. In his first five games, Reimer gave up nine goals. In his last five he has given up 15 and the three he gave up were tough, an early floater, a fat rebound in the second and then a shot nearly from the blue line that found its way home early on a Buffalo power play.  All that said, the Leafs’ goaltending situation is as stable as it has been all year. Handed the hottest position in the sport at 22, Reimer hasn’t dominated recently but there are few complaints.

“He’s had a couple of nights where he hasn’t been as sharp as he has been but you can’t expect a goalie to be perfect every night,” said Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson.

For two more nights at least, and possibly many more, the Maple Leafs have regained their legitimacy and while the team’s fortunes might ebb, they will not fall. Too much has already been gained to obscure any wipe out at the wire.
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