So the Toronto Maple Leafs have a win streak.
And at four games, it’s their longest of the season.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, either, as they had been sagging badly coming out of the Winter Classic, losing four in a row immediately after that game as part of a 32-game stretch with just four regulation wins (11-16-5).
The Leafs flew out West on Sunday afternoon to start a road trip with back-to-back games in Phoenix and Denver, and they can draw a lot of confidence from the fact their win over the Montreal Canadians on Saturday was one of their best games of the season.
Their four-game win streak has been a mixed bag overall, as it included two shootout wins – including one over last place Buffalo – and a couple games in which Toronto still spent a lot of time in their own zone.
But after being outshot by an average of nine shots per game through the first 46 games, that number dipped to about half of that in these wins, one sign of progress on the possession front. And some offensive players that have been awfully quiet have finally come alive.
Here are four more reasons they’ve found ways to win of late:
1. Less Jay McClement
He might be the hardest working player on the team, a veteran who gives his all every day and who coach Randy Carlyle loves as a result. But even Carlyle came to the realization last week that McClement had been logging far too many minutes and cut him back to between seven and 12 minutes in Toronto’s last three games.
That’s quite a fall from the 19 minutes he had averaged the previous 11 games, and some of the available ice time went to youngsters Peter Holland and Nazem Kadri, who obviously provide a great deal more offence.
McClement, meanwhile, has been able to concentrate on killing penalties and giving Toronto some more utility minutes with the third and fourth lines.
Dialling Tyler Bozak back from more than 23 minutes a game – which he’s now had nine times in 26 games – should also be a priority, as Carlyle risks burning him out. (Bozak is currently ninth among NHL forwards in ice time per game.)
2. More Tim Gleason
Few knew what to expect when the Leafs acquired Gleason on New Year’s Day, as he had battled injuries, fallen out of favour in Carolina and had a big contract coming with him.
But the 2010 Olympian looks so far like he’s regained a little bit of that form, playing a dependable 19 minutes a night in his seven games to date and pushing the likes of Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser out of the lineup entirely.
Carlyle has given Gleason pretty tough minutes, too – with mainly defensive zone starts and tough assignments as part of a second pair with Cody Franson – and he’s kept his head above water, which has freed up Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly for a freewheeling “kid” pairing on the third unit.
It’s a small sample size, but for the first time this year, the blueline has had three pairings that appear to be working.
3. Thrill is back for Phil
Phil Kessel stopped scoring just long enough for people to start wondering, but he’s back as productive as ever lately, with 10 points in his last five games to move him into a tie for 12th in NHL scoring.
Kessel’s on pace for 38 goals – a career high – and nearly 80 points after this latest run, something that has been greatly helped by the fact his linemates, Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, have also been playing so well.
Offensively, the Leafs have been a one-line team too often this season, and it’s hurt their goal totals (17th in the league), but Carlyle’s slightly more balanced lineup and some better play from Nazem Kadri and Mason Raymond have added a few more headaches for opposing teams.
4. Bernier on his game
Among goalies with at least 20 starts, Jonathan Bernier is now sixth in the league with a .926 save percentage. And he’s been even better than even that (.929) over his last three starts on this win streak.
Bernier’s overall work this season has been very strong, but there was a stretch prior to this latest run where he was merely ordinary, with a close to league average .915 save percentage in 18 appearances. When you’re facing 36 shots a game, ordinary can be a problem, and he allowed three goals or more 10 times in 15 starts at one point.
Toronto went just 2-7-1 in those games.
A lot of the Leafs record this season comes back to the fact they’re tied with the fourth best even strength save percentage in the league; as long as Bernier and James Reimer keep providing goaltending that solid, Toronto should continue to win its share of games.