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Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf leaves the game after getting hit in the mouth by a shot during third period NHL action against the Winnipeg Jets in Toronto on Thursday January 5, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf leaves the game after getting hit in the mouth by a shot during third period NHL action against the Winnipeg Jets in Toronto on Thursday January 5, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/CP)

Stronger defence pays dividends for Leafs Add to ...

Defensive stalwarts, they are typically not.

But if there’s one aspect of the Toronto Maple Leafs game that’s evolved for the better in the past month, it’s been their play in their own end.

That improvement has come all in the new year, with the Leafs’ 8-4-1 record since Jan. 1 a product of a combination of better goaltending, defensive play and penalty killing.

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Both Leafs goaltenders have remarked over that stretch how well the team has played defensively in front of them, which the organization hasn’t been known for since the 2004-05 lockout.

“They did a great job,” netminder James Reimer said of his teammates’ play in Toronto’s 1-0 win Wednesday over the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the higher scoring teams in the league. “Any time you get a shutout, usually your defence plays exceptional and that was the case [Wednesday]night.

“I felt like I saw every puck that got through, and the ones I couldn’t see, they were blocking. It was just a perfect situation in that sense. They worked really hard. For me, it was just a lot of fun hanging out behind them.”

Toronto’s goalies have been a major focal point for much of the season – Reimer’s concussion, Jonas Gustavsson grabbing the No. 1 role – but the team’s defensive gains are a little bit more under the radar and harder to define.

In part, you can credit the Leafs’ success to simply staying out of the penalty box. Toronto has been shorthanded just 19 times in those 13 games – 1.46 a game compared to 3.89 before that – and killed all 19 of those penalties.

Add in strong efforts against star players in recent games – including Mikhail Grabovski doing an admirable job limiting Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin in the past two – and the Leafs’ defensive game has finally begun trending in the right direction.

Heading into its game Saturday against the Ottawa Senators, Toronto has allowed an average of just two goals a game in their past 13.

The team’s goals against average is down to 2.88, which is a small drop from 2.94 last season, 3.15 the year before that and 3.43 in coach Ron Wilson’s first season in Toronto.

The Leafs have also slowly moved up into the middle of the NHL pack in shots against. And after they were outshot in almost two-thirds of their games before Jan. 1, the Leafs have been on the right side of the shot clock in eight of the 13 games.

Defenceman Luke Schenn said on Thursday that shift has come through a conscious decision to clamp down on chances against.

“[Limiting shots against]comes from a few different things,” Schenn said. “Not turning the puck over at the bluelines, having forwards coming back helping to back check, having the defencemen standing up and blocking shots. That’s something we definitely focused on; we had been giving up too many shots. It definitely helps when you can keep them down.”

That attention to better defence has also paid off recently with several shutouts, with four of the Leafs’ wins in the past month coming without the other team getting on the board.

Toronto now has five shutouts this season after 51 games, which is a considerable increase considering the team had just eight total in the first three seasons (246 games) with Wilson as coach.

With the Leafs now fully healthy after the return of John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong on Wednesday, the hope is that they can continue to shut teams down with greater regularity.

Especially with top scorers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul struggling to find the back of the net.

“We’ve been getting points lately, but we’ve struggled against divisional teams,” Schenn said. “We need to get those wins. Ottawa’s a great challenge for us. … Hopefully we can continue to build on what we started here the past few games.”

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