Granted, it is way too early for any definitive declarations – but the Toronto Maple Leafs can thank just about everyone for their 4-1 start, despite the absence of four regulars from the lineup.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, of course, can take the biggest bow. He is on his way to becoming the biggest thing in Toronto since Mats Sundin by proving the adage great goaltending makes good teams great.
After getting his first shutout as a Leaf Thursday against the Nashville Predators to drop his goals-against average to 0.85 and raise his save percentage to .974 in four games – eye-popping numbers to be sure – Bernier can expect a noisy welcome Saturday from the Air Canada Centre fans when the Edmonton Oilers pay a visit.
While those numbers will certainly come down as the season wears on, what probably won’t is the sense of confidence Bernier’s efficient handling of the puck and rebounds gives his young teammates. This is especially important since head coach Randy Carlyle had to throw a group of unproven youngsters into the lineup (five Maple Leafs have made their NHL debuts so far) because of injuries to defenceman Mark Fraser and forwards Frazer McLaren and Nikolai Kulemin and the 10-game suspension to forward David Clarkson.
Defenceman Cody Franson narrowly escaped being the next veteran on the injured list. He suffered a nasty cut on his nose when he was driven into the glass and metal stanchion from behind by Predators centre Mike Fisher. Franson took part in Friday’s practice wearing a full face shield to protect his stitched-up beak, but will play against the Oilers. Franson said his ex-teammate Fisher texted him after the game to learn if he escaped without a serious injury.
Thanks to Bernier’s great start, Carlyle has been able to get through the first five games with some smoke and mirrors. With the goalie calmly smothering most potential rebounds, the Leafs’ newbies do not have to nervously tip-toe around the ice.
In the 4-0 win over the Predators, for example, forwards David Broll and Josh Leivo, both 20, came up from the Toronto Marlies farm team to play solid supporting roles in their first NHL game. And 19-year-old Morgan Rielly continues to make a case to stay in the NHL this season rather than go back to junior after nine games, as he has stepped up to replace Franson among the team’s top four defencemen since the Fisher hit.
Another boost for the Leafs comes from their special teams. There may be some misfiring from time to time at both ends of the ice over all, but their work on the power plays and the penalty kill is good enough to overcome that. The Leafs are cashing in on their power-play opportunities, while denying the opposition the same.
In five games, the Leafs scored six power-play goals in 21 opportunities for a success rate of 28.6 per cent, which ties them with the Tampa Bay Lightning for seventh among the NHL’s 30 teams. The Leafs are fourth in the league in killing penalties with a superb 94.4-per-cent success rate, having allowed just one goal in 18 times shorthanded.
Broll and Leivo are expected to be in the lineup against the Oilers. Broll, who was taken in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, provided the muscle Thursday on the second line with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Joffrey Lupul. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound native of Mississauga put himself solidly in Carlyle’s good books by playing a physical game in his 9 minutes 19 seconds of ice time, including a fight with Matt Hendricks.
Leivo, who went in the third round of the draft in the same year as Broll, played on the third line with centre David Bolland (who was given Friday off as a “maintenance day”) and right winger Mason Raymond. Leivo finished with 9:02 on the ice.
McLaren, who is on the long-term injured reserve with a broken pinky, took part in his first full practice of the season Friday. He left 35 minutes into the session, but did hit the ice by himself a half-hour before his teammates.
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts