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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (L) is congratulated by team mate Tyler Bozak after Kessel scored his second goal in the second period of their NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Toronto October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (L) is congratulated by team mate Tyler Bozak after Kessel scored his second goal in the second period of their NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Toronto October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

LEAFS BEAT

Are these Leafs for real? Add to ...

Even the team’s toughest critics will have a hard time quibbling with the Toronto Maple Leafs record, one month into the season.

On the strength of a 4-0-1 start, the Leafs’ 7-3-1 October is the franchise’s best opening month in 12 years, going back to a 9-3-1 opening back in 1999 that had Toronto briefly atop the entire NHL.

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This season, they’re second in the Eastern Conference and have six more points than at this time a year ago.

But after years of short stints of strong play and eventual disappointment, the question with this group is, simply, are these Leafs for real?

With that in mind, here are six answers, on both sides of the equation, with 71 games to go:

Yes: Their best players have been their best players

The well-worn cliché fits for the Leafs. Toronto’s two highest-paid players in captain Dion Phaneuf and sniper Phil Kessel have been leading the way and are among the NHL leaders at their positions in most offensive categories.

Phaneuf’s strong start has been the most important of anyone’s, as he has had more ice time than all but three other players in the NHL (just shy of 27 minutes a game) and has been better defensively than at any other point in his career.

At 26 and 24, Phaneuf and Kessel appear to be on the upswing only a couple years after the teams that drafted them dealt them to Toronto.

No: The penalty kill is still horrible

Long one of the Leafs’ major weak spots, they remain lost when down a man. After allowing two more goals while shorthanded in Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, Toronto has killed off just 72.3 per cent of its trips to the box.

Even with new assistant coach Greg Cronin taking over the PK duties, they’ve somehow taken a step back from last year’s 77.5-per-cent mark, which was third-worst in the NHL.

Yes: Better offensive depth has meant more goals

Don’t look now, but the Leafs are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.

The team that couldn’t buy a goal in the first half of last season has scored 35 in its first 11 games, putting Toronto third in the NHL with 3.18 goals per game.

Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul have scored 43 per cent of those and obviously can’t keep that up. The Leafs should, however, get enough production from all four lines to stay in the top half of the NHL in goals scored.

No: Goaltending remains a question mark

With a .912 save percentage, starting netminder James Reimer has given the Leafs roughly league-average goaltending when he’s been healthy.

The problem is that his backup, Jonas Gustavsson, hasn’t, and his .888 save percentage drops the team’s average to .899 – good for 24th in the NHL.

While The Monster has had good outings of late, his tendency to often give up one bad goal a game means the Toronto’s goaltending can sometimes be a weak point.

Yes: The goons are gone

One real reason for optimism has been coach Ron Wilson’s willingness to bench his tough guys.

Colton Orr, who hadn’t been a healthy scratch in two years in Toronto, has sat in the press box in nine of 11 games to date. The team’s other one-dimensional puncher, Jay Rosehill, has played only four games.

It may not fit with Brian Burke’s philosophy, but Wilson is often dressing a group of solid checkers as his fourth line and getting better results.

No: They’re being out-shot more often than not

The Leafs have been getting a ton of goals without producing a large number of shots on goal, something that will likely be difficult to maintain all season.

Toronto has been out-shot by an average of 4.2 shots per game, which is fifth worst in the league and a trend they’ll want to reverse if they want to return the postseason after all these years away.

The issue is the worst when Phaneuf isn’t on the ice. The Leafs actually out-shoot their opposition when the captain (usually with defence partner Carl Gunnarsson) is on at even strength but are badly out chanced when they’re on the bench.

“We chart scoring chances [for and against]and his numbers are off the chart there,” Wilson said of Phaneuf.

The downside is how ugly they are for almost everyone else on the blueline.



Key numbers: Why they're winning

2010-11

2011-12

Difference

Goals per game

2.60

3.18

0.58

Goals against

2.99

3.18

0.19

Goal differential

-0.39

0.00

0.39

Shots per game

28.8

27.4

-1.4

Shots against

31.0

31.5

0.5

Shot differential

-2.2

-4.1

-1.9

Shooting pct

9.0%

11.6%

2.6%

Save pct

0.904

0.899

-0.005

Power play

16.0%

17.6%

1.6%

Penalty kill

77.4%

72.3%

-5.1%

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