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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, (left) of Finland, and centre Phil Kessel celebrate their win over the Washington Capitals in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday December 12, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, (left) of Finland, and centre Phil Kessel celebrate their win over the Washington Capitals in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday December 12, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)

David Shoalts

Leafs at a crossroads Add to ...

When it comes to baby steps versus giant strides, questions remain about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Certainly, compared to where they were just 25 days ago, the Leafs have made giant strides. But when it comes to running with the big dogs, the conversation turns more to baby steps despite the Maple Leafs' solid 6-3 win Saturday night over the Washington Capitals, the leading team in the NHL at the time, albeit a weary one.

Twenty-five days ago, it could be argued the Leafs hit the lowest point of an exceedingly rough start to the season. They went into Carolina, blew a 3-0 lead, wound up in overtime thanks to a last-second goal and lost. That was their fifth loss in succession following a brief spurt of competence.

From that point on, starting with a 2-1 overtime win against the Capitals in their next outing, the Leafs got a little better each time out. And each time their collective confidence improved as well.

Now, with the wins coming more steadily than the losses (5-2 in their past seven games), the question is how long before the Leafs' believe they can play with the best teams, at least the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

After all, the Leafs can now brag they hold a 2-1 edge on the Capitals this season. Then again, the Leafs caught the Caps on Saturday after a tough overtime win the night before plus aircraft problems that disrupted their travel schedule.

There is also the matter of those two decisive losses to the Boston Bruins in the past nine days. They looked almost as bad in those two games as they did earlier in the season.

So just where are the Leafs these days? A confident, improving group or one that is still fragile enough to fall apart when misfortune strikes?

The answer will likely come in the next eight days, as the Leafs hit a busy stretch in the period leading up to Christmas. The next five opponents range from present peers (New York Islanders) to slightly better (Ottawa Senators) to better (Phoenix Coyotes) to much better (Bruins, Buffalo Sabres).

At this point, Leafs head coach Ron Wilson says, the Leafs have the confidence they can play with the best but not the firepower. As the win over the Capitals showed, the Leafs' first line of centre Matt Stajan and wingers Phil Kessel and Alexei Ponikarovsky can compete with anyone at times. All three had multi-point nights.

But the other forward lines have holes. His players take a lot of shots, Wilson said, because unlike Alexander Ovechkin and his talented teammates on the Capitals, they cannot take anything for granted about scoring.

"We don't have the absolute skill Washington has, so our attention to detail has to be so much stronger than Washington," Wilson said. "I'm talking about having our sticks in the right position, knowing where they are all the time."

Collective confidence comes from star players, Wilson says, which is what is starting to happen with the Leafs. Kessel hit the ice flying in November after he recovered from shoulder surgery.

"I think a lot of that from [Kessel]has rubbed off on guys, just like for Washington having someone like Ovechkin and the way he plays makes everybody else that much more dangerous," Wilson said. "You see a confident player and it often rubs off on the rest of your team, having a star player like that.

"But Ovechkin is playing with some real studs, too. The difference with those guys is they think they're going to score every shift and it has a positive effect on your team."

What acts as an equalizer, according to Wilson, is that performance ebbs and flows, even for the best teams. Like his team, the Capitals had a poor start to the season, although not as bad as the Leafs' and they have been hot for the past six weeks, also on a different level than the Leafs.

Wilson said the turnaround happened on Nov. 23 when they bombarded the Islanders with 61 shots and lost in overtime because of goaltender Dwayne Roloson. That got the Leafs believing they were on the right track, that sometimes a goaltender will steal a game but in the long run they will prevail.

And others are starting to notice, like centre Brooks Laich of the Capitals. The Leafs "might not be the most talented team but they never give up," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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