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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) and forward Nazem Kadri (43) and Florida Panthers forward Colton Sceviour (7) watch a puck roll down the ice during the first period at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Nov. 17, 2016. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) and forward Nazem Kadri (43) and Florida Panthers forward Colton Sceviour (7) watch a puck roll down the ice during the first period at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Nov. 17, 2016. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

Strong showing from Maple Leafs rookies stokes hopes for playoffs Add to ...

The “P” word made a rare appearance in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room on Thursday night.

The media brought it there, convinced perhaps by what had just happened on the ice. Again, the Leafs rookies ran over a quality opponent – a Florida Panthers team that had 103 points last season and is considered one of the better teams in the conference.

For the fourth time in their past six games, the Leafs piled up six goals. Most came from the kids. Several were highlight-reel material, in what was a tough night for Panthers goaltender James Reimer.

So, for the sixth time in their past eight games, the Leafs won. And suddenly talking about the “playoffs” isn’t all that farfetched, not with their firepower and not with Frederik Andersen playing very much like a capable No. 1 in net.

The players sense it.

“We’re not down-playing it,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We think that we can beat anybody in this league. If you have that attitude every day, long story short, you want to be playing in May and June. That’s how we feel.”

That talk would have been deemed insane only six weeks ago, before the season started. The Leafs finished dead last in April. They couldn’t score. They dealt away several big-minutes veterans and are the youngest team in the NHL, with seven rookies playing regular roles.

Some progress made sense, given the promise of a player such as Auston Matthews.

But 17 games into the season, the Leafs as an organization feel they are ahead of schedule in a rebuilding process that some thought would take four or five years. President Brendan Shanahan has said it. So has head coach Mike Babcock.

The evidence is there in what they have accomplished so far. Before Friday’s games, the Leafs sat tied for fourth in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens – whom they face Saturday – in goals per game. The Leafs lead the NHL in shots per game (32.6) and sit second in scoring chances generated.

According to naturalstattrick.com, at even strength, the Leafs are also a top-10 possession team, sixth in scoring-chance differential and third in high-danger chances for versus against.

While the Leafs struggled in October (2-4-3), a lot of those losses were because of goaltending, when Andersen was labouring to return from an injury after missing much of camp.

Since then, he has turned a corner, posting a .930 save percentage in November while getting plenty of what Babcock calls “run support.”

And players have started to believe they can continue to surprise teams.

“We have been really impressed with what the young guys have been able to do,” Rielly said. “When you add pieces that we have, I think that it has maybe bumped [the expectations] up a little bit …

“Guys kind of get a feeling. You watch Mitch’s goal [against the Panthers]. You watch Auston play. You watch Willie [William Nylander] and [Zack] Hyman and Brownie [Connor Brown].

“I don’t think that we thought that these guys were going to …”

Rielly searched for the right word, but everyone around him in the dressing room knew what he meant: No one thought the youngsters would make this kind of impact immediately. Everybody expected growing pains, with so many new faces. They expected more adversity.

And there has been some. The Leafs are not a good defensive team. They are uneven in their own end many nights, and they’ve been blasted out of the rink by top teams such as Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, even in what’s been a strong month.

But this is still a team tracking for a 23-point jump in the standing and little about that improvement appears to be a mirage.

That the Leafs have gone on this run with Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin playing 19 minutes a night on various ineffective second-pair defensive combinations is even more encouraging. That there is more talent coming from the minors is, too. (Brendan Leipsic is tied for the AHL scoring lead.)

This is an organization still very much in transition, with plenty of areas of the roster unaddressed. There have been no big-name free-agent additions – unless you count Andersen – and the Leafs are operating without roughly $24-million (U.S.) in cap space, which is buried on injured reserve or in the minors.

The lineup Babcock is using night-to-night is making less than $50-million in a league in which the average payroll tops $70-million. That will start to change beginning next season, when some of the dead-weight deals begin to disappear and the Leafs can add pieces.

Until then, however, players are right to feel encouraged. The kids are better than all right – and they have lifted a last-place team into early contention for a wild-card spot.

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