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Toronto Maple Leafs Clark MacArthur celebrates his goal with Mike Komisarek against the Ottawa Senators during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto, October 9, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (MARK BLINCH)
Toronto Maple Leafs Clark MacArthur celebrates his goal with Mike Komisarek against the Ottawa Senators during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto, October 9, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (MARK BLINCH)

David Shoalts

Maple Leafs fans have reasons for early optimism Add to ...

These are early days but there was a glimmer of hope from the Air Canada Centre on a weekend when Leafs Nation was rocked by the news Nazem Kadri was benched in his first American Hockey League game.

Oh somewhere, as Ernest Thayer wrote in Casey at the Bat, in this favoured land the sun is shining bright; The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.

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Okay, we'll dispense with the sarcasm. Yes, hearts are light around Toronto this morning as the Maple Leafs sport a 2-0 record after the first weekend of the NHL season. A year ago, it took them 14 tries - until Nov. 6 - to win two games. If you are crazed enough to parse Leaf starts down to the first two games of the season, then this is their best start since 1999.

A look at the latest edition of the Maple Leafs shows much to like, mostly their work ethic and enthusiasm which were missing most of the time last season. It is also encouraging for their fans that the Leafs beat two decent teams in those outings, the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, and dominated the Senators in a 5-1 win on Saturday, although the visitors could argue they were coming off a game the night before.

First, before we get too far down the Yellow Brick Road, it has to be pointed out the Leafs will still be hard-pressed to make the playoffs this season. While it is safe to say they are much better than last season, the rest of the Eastern Conference has not been standing still either and it is a long way from 29th overall to the playoffs.

However, this team is going to be much more fun to watch. They fore-check with enthusiasm, knock down any opposing bodies that get close and don't try to get cute in their own end. The puck is quickly directed back up the ice, either with a good first pass to a teammate or off the glass if there is no alternative.

Much of this, the players say, comes from the fact they bonded quickly during training camp even though general manager Brian Burke brought in a lot of new players to go with the changes he made late last season.

"We built a winning attitude at end of last year," said third-year defenceman Luke Schenn, who has shown none of the shakiness he did in his sophomore year. "We're a pretty close bunch of guys in here. There is a lot of character, a good work ethic."

The difference, as it was in the late 1990s when Curtis Joseph was the toast of Toronto, begins in goal. With Jean-Sébastien Giguère calmly turning aside scoring chances, the players can work with confidence instead of drooping when a routine shot winds up in the net early in the game.

"No question, that's everything," Schenn said. "When you're allowed to make the odd mistake and he's going to bail you out, it's a huge difference."

The confidence spreads to all areas of a team's game. The Leafs were the worst penalty killers in the league last season but have not allowed a power-play goal in their first two games (seven-for-seven). Secondary scoring is also much improved, with Clarke MacArthur and Tim Brent each sporting as many goals (two) as Phil Kessel.

But the real proof is in some of the holdovers from last season, who still had doubts around them. On the Leafs' first goal against the Senators, for example, that was Mikhail Grabovski who made Ottawa centre Jason Spezza cough up the puck. That's the same Grabovski whose picture used to be in the hockey dictionary under one-way player.

Head coach Ron Wilson admits it's nice to see players go out and do what he tells them to do but says it still comes down to a fundamental hockey truth when he compares them to last season's team.

"They are better players, period."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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