The Toronto Maple Leafs were undefeated. Phil Kessel was red hot.
And the fan base was perking up.
But the players, at least now, admit they were more than a little over-enthused about being 4-0-0 to start the season, exactly a year ago.
“Last year, we were all celebrating,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Now it’s just like, why even waste your time? Honestly.”
The truth is, this is a team that learned a difficult lesson a year ago, one about just how little a week or two of success means in a marathon, 82-game regular season.
Four wins to start a season are nothing when you win just one game in your next 12, as they did a year ago.
Four wins are quickly forgotten when injuries hit, inexperience shows and you’re 13-19-4 by the end of December – on pace for an atrocious 68-point season that would have put Toronto last in the Eastern Conference by season’s end.
So while the Leafs are 3-0 heading into Monday’s game against the equally hot Colorado Avalanche, there’s no celebrating among the players and there likely won’t be much until they can clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2004.
And that’s how it should be.
“We have to learn from that,” Colby Armstrong said of the team’s 9-19-4 collapse a year ago. “We remind ourselves all the time in here. It’s cliché, but we take it a game at a time.”
“Looking back on it, I mean, obviously it wasn’t great the way things happened,” Schenn said. “But we can definitely learn from it. We’re off to a similar start, you can’t let it go to your head, you’ve got to stay humble.”
It was clearly evident the day the schedule was released that, at least in terms of opponents, the Leafs had been gift wrapped a relatively easy start. Five home games, spread out over two weeks, and four of them against opponents who missed the playoffs and averaged just 79 points a year ago.
To their credit, Toronto has taken advantage of that so far, helping three fellow Canadian teams to a combined 3-9-1 start after a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday.
Kessel, as he was a year ago early on, has been terrific, and now has a share of the NHL lead in goals (five), points (eight) and plus-minus (plus seven). He’s also, incredibly, earning plaudits for his defensive play – one of the biggest surprises, league-wide, of the season’s first 11 days.
Then again, it’s so early, that every stat and tidbit comes with a caveat. It’s impossible, for one, for Kessel to keep scoring on 45 per cent of his shots on goal, given he’s been a 10 or 11 per cent kind of guy throughout his career.
“If he could keep up this pace the whole year, it’d be a pretty good season,” said Tyler Bozak, the dressing room spokesman for the camera-shy Kessel. “But there’s obviously going to be ups and downs. Just got to try and stay as consistent as you can.”
That goes as much for the team as Phil The Thrill, as the only consistency for the franchise of late has been its consistently horrific starts and failed late-season rallies come February and March.
Schenn is one of the few players on the roster to have lived through three years of that trend, and he’s already heard from plenty of skeptics among the media and fans when it comes to their 3-0 start.
He admitted Sunday he won’t feel like celebrating until they’re much closer to the finish line, even if the Leafs add another three or four wins over the next week.
“You’re not going to make the playoffs right now,” Schenn said. “If this was Game 78 of the season and we were at the top [of the standings]then I’d be a little more excited … We know the way we started off last season. We’re reminded of it every day, being in the city of Toronto.”Report Typo/Error