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How the Leafs returned to the promised land

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer looks up as he celebrates the defeating the Ottawa Senators 4-1 after NHL action in Ottawa Saturday April 20, 2013. Reimer is a key reason for his team’s success this season writes James Mirtle.


It has, incredibly, been 3,275 days and 619 regular-season games since the Toronto Maple Leafs last played in the NHL playoffs.

Now there's just one more week and three more games to go.

Late Saturday night after a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators clinched a playoff spot, the Leafs boarded a plane bound for Tampa, where they'll spend two days practising in advance of Wednesday's game against the Lightning.

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The time away in the sun will give the Leafs one last chance to catch their breath and reflect upon their accomplishment before the playoffs begin next week.

It'll also be an entirely different feeling than the team's visit to the Sunshine State a year ago, when Toronto lost to the Florida Panthers at the tail end of a season-killing 2-13-2 stretch that then GM Brian Burke famously likened to "an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff."

They won two nights later against the Lightning, but by then, the damage had been done and the Leafs were well on their way to a 26th-place finish.

With all their recent success, the players say that feels like much longer than just a year ago.

"Last year, we were in that skid for a long time, and we didn't have much confidence," defenceman Cody Franson explained. "We were a fragile group. Now, we've really focused on what we do, systematically, on what works for us and what doesn't, and just making sure we're tightening things up. Making us as tough to play against as possible.

"We've learned from our mistakes," he added. "And we've done a better job of sticking with situations when things aren't necessarily going well for us."

A lot more has gone right than wrong this season, however. Here's a closer look, by the numbers, at some of the main reasons why this year has been so different than the one before:

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Key number: .919 team save percentage

Where would the Leafs be this season without James Reimer? Well, they got an idea of that a year ago, and it wasn't pretty.

Reimer has posted a sparkling .926 save percentage and 18-6-5 record this season that put him right up among the league leaders, making him the team's most valuable player and a big reason why Toronto has thrived while often being outshot in games.

As a result, the Leafs team save percentage rocketed up to .919 from .897, the second-biggest improvement in the NHL next to only Ottawa (to .934 from .910) this season. For Toronto, that's the equivalent to its goaltenders stopping more than half a goal a game more than they did a year ago.

Special teams

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Key number: 87-per-cent penalty-kill rate

Not that Reimer hasn't had help, especially on the penalty kill, where Leafs goalies have been shelled for years.

This season, however, with a radically different system put in place by head coach Randy Carlyle and assistant Scott Gordon, Toronto is on pace to cut down the number of goals it allows while short-handed by more than 20 over a full 82-game season.

New personnel has helped, too. Jay McClement, Mark Fraser and Leo Komarov have all logged big minutes on the penalty kill and brought a fresh approach to what had become a beaten-down group.

Add in a power play that is firing at nearly 20 per cent, and special teams have been a huge strength.


Key number: Zero disgruntled players

One of the most obvious changes has been behind the bench, something that was on full display last week during the Leafs' recent struggles.

With the New Jersey Devils hemming Toronto in its own zone and allowing the Leafs just five shots against through two periods, Carlyle strolled into the Toronto dressing room at the Air Canada Centre and began ripping on his players.

Only instead of sitting in stony silence, they couldn't help but cracking up as the grizzled old coach peppered in colourful one-liners about just how brutal they had been.

Thirteen minutes into the third period, Phil Kessel scored on a late power play and they won the game. "We'll keep those jokes in the dressing room," Reimer said. "But he came in here and gave us a boost by just lightening the mood. It was good."

"It's a credit to the coaching staff to recognize the mood in the dressing room and know what the boys need," Franson added. "They've done a great job of that."

Carlyle's ability to read his team and react isn't something that's evident directly in the numbers, but what's clear is that this group has been better at hanging in and winning close games.

The Leafs are 11-3-5 in one-goal games this season, a noticeable improvement from winning only 16 times in 38 of those situations a year ago.

The sour atmosphere that permeated the team under previous coach Ron Wilson, meanwhile, is gone entirely, which helps explain why previous doghouse tenants such as Franson and Nazem Kadri had career years.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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