Ken Hitchcock has no doubt where the Toronto Maple Leafs, subject of much angst this season, are headed.
"I look at the big picture," the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets said yesterday. "If they continue to play at the pace they are playing at, they are probably going to get into the playoffs. It's probably shocking to everybody, but they look to me like a team that is starting to figure out the balance between offence and defence.
"They are dynamic up front. They are quick and they get on you quick."
It was no comfort to Hitchcock that the Maple Leafs went out a few hours later and played exactly the way he laid it out. The Leafs dominated the Blue Jackets, at least offensively, taking the puck away from them at will in running up a 6-3 decision, their second win in a row and fifth in their past seven games.
Hitchcock thinks Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who appeared in his 1,200th game as an NHL head coach last night, now has the Leafs playing like his signature teams did in San Jose when Wilson was the head coach of the Sharks. Wilson's Sharks were big, fast and quick to capitalize on mistakes, making them one of the NHL's best teams in the regular season, although their continued playoff collapses cost Wilson his job in the spring of 2008.
"When you turn down the volume," Hitchcock said, referring to the recent criticism of Wilson, "the team looks a lot like San Jose did when [Wilson] was there, checking-wise. It seems to be there are more and more minutes that the players are understanding the concept of pressing up."
The Leafs are now six points away from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Wilson agrees with Hitchcock that the playoffs are possible and his team is playing with more confidence, although he was not too impressed with his players' effort last night.
"Maybe at times we were too confident because that was as sloppy as we could be defensively," he said. "Thank God [goaltender]Joey MacDonald was there. We took great pride in fore-checking in San Jose, but it's a little different with [the Leafs] This team isn't as big as the team I had in San Jose. But they can be as fast."
The Leafs took advantage of two Blue Jackets turnovers deep in their own end to take a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Phil Kessel and Lee Stempniak and never looked back.
Individually, the best Leafs were Kessel, who prepared for tomorrow's first visit to his former team, the Boston Bruins, by scoring two goals, and MacDonald, who covered up most of his teammates' defensive lapses. Jason Blake also put in a bid for some attention with two goals, which doubled his season's output to four.
"If Kessel passed the puck a little bit, he could have had a Gordie Howe hat trick," Wilson said, referring to the fact Kessel got into his first fight as a professional but failed to get an assist to record a goal, an assist and a fight. But as Kessel admitted, his tiff with Kris Russell was "a wrestling match."
MacDonald was filling in for Jonas Gustavsson, out with another heart problem, and was outstanding for the second game in succession. This means Wilson may have to postpone Vesa Toskala's comeback from a groin injury and give MacDonald another start tomorrow when the Leafs play the Bruins.
The Leafs did not play as well defensively as they have of late, but MacDonald made the difference in front of a sparse crowd announced as 14,825 at Nationwide Arena.
"Once you get up three or four goals, you tend to sit back a bit," MacDonald said. "They had some odd-man rushes, but it was a great feeling to come in here and do well."
Blake's first goal of the night and Kessel's second, which gave him 10 in 15 games, gave the Leafs the cushion they needed after Kristian Huselius scored a power-play goal for Columbus early in the second period.
Leaf winger Nikolai Kulemin rounded out the second-period scoring. He stripped the puck from former Leaf defenceman Anton Stralman at the Leaf blueline during a Blue Jackets power play and scored on a long wrist shot.
It was the Leafs' second consecutive strong outing in as many road games. The difference is that the forwards are starting to see some results from all the shots they have been taking.
Jason Chimera and Jan Hejda also scored for the Blue Jackets.