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Toronto Maple Leafs Dion Phaneuf, left, celebrates a Maple Leafs first period goal with teammate Phil Kessel during first period NHL hockey action against the New Jersey Devils in Toronto Thursday, March 18, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Maple Leafs Dion Phaneuf, left, celebrates a Maple Leafs first period goal with teammate Phil Kessel during first period NHL hockey action against the New Jersey Devils in Toronto Thursday, March 18, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

David Shoalts

Leafs exhibit truculence and tenacity Add to ...

With apologies to Buffalo Springfield, the last few weeks showed when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs there's something happening here.

What it is may not be exactly clear, given the rebuilding touches that still need to be done and the youth of the team, but this is definitely a team that is starting to open some eyes around the NHL.

The young, speedy, hard-working Leafs (and when's the last time you could use all that in an adjectival phrase about them) gave the defending Stanley Cup champions fits on Sunday before falling in a shootout. It broke a seven-game streak of overtime wins and afterward the Pittsburgh Penguins paid tribute to a team that should be in the playoffs next season.

"They're fast, and they got in on the fore-check," Penguins forward Craig Adams said "They got pucks behind us and they worked, so they gave us everything we could handle."

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma called the Leafs "tenacious" and said their 8-2 run going into Sunday's game was due to Phil Kessel scoring timely goals "and outworking teams in their own zone."

When Brian Burke took over as general manager on Nov. 29, 2008 he promised, between using his favourite word truculence, a team that would fore-check aggressively, be tight defensively and rattle bodies at both ends of the ice. While Burke and head coach Ron Wilson are a long way from sitting back and declaring the rebuilding job finished, for the last month the fans could finally see there is progress toward a playoff spot for the first time since 2004.

There is the argument that yeah, the Leafs are playing great because there is no pressure on them because the Leafs have long been out of the playoff picture this season. That reasoning is never far from the surface because that is just what the Leafs have done for the last five years.

However, this is a much different group from those collections of indifferent and mediocre veterans. You have to go all the way down to the fourth line before you find a forward older than 26. The Leafs' top line of Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin are, respectively, 22, 24 and 23.

There is pressure of a sort on these players. Most of the youngsters are trying to show Burke and Wilson they deserve a spot on the team next season. They are also playing a lot of teams who are fighting for a playoff spots or positions and proving to be successful more often than not.

In the last two weeks, the Leafs have proved to be spoilers against the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and others. Tonight, they can slam the Atlanta Thrashers' playoff hopes for a second time in five days.

Of that 8-2 run that ended against the Penguins, six wins were in overtime or by shootout, a good sign that the Leafs are learning what it takes to win in the NHL.

The one position that could be blamed more than any other, even the forwards' collective lack of scoring, for the team's awful play early in the season which put the playoffs out of reach was goaltending. Once J.S. Giguere was swapped in for the uncertain Vesa Toskala there were two benefits.

One was that the defence, which was the focus of last summer's rebuilding effort and was boosted with the addition of Dion Phaneuf at the same time as Giguere, finally settled down. With the reassurance that someone would be there to cover their mistakes, the defencemen began playing with more confidence. And that let the forwards linger a little longer in the offensive zone.

Giguere's presence also took a lot of pressure off rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. When Toskala flopped out of the gate, it fell to Gustavsson to try and backstop a playoff drive, never a good idea for a rookie goaltender, especially one from Sweden who was trying to learn the North American game.

Since Giguere's arrival, Gustavsson has been more than solid. He is riding a seven-game winning streak with the kind of play that shows why Burke went to all that trouble to sign him.

Defenceman Luke Schenn, 20, is another youngster who is back on track. For a while, it looked like he might never shake a sophomore slump but he is now looking at home.

What remains to be done this summer is add a little more size and scoring to the top six forwards. The scoring skill may or may not come from Nazem Kadri, who is expected to make the jump from junior hockey.

It may also come from trading defenceman Tomas Kaberle, although one hopes Burke will resist the temptation.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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