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Leafs Beat

A blog on all things Toronto Maple Leafs

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have improved their form since shipping defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Boston. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have improved their form since shipping defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Boston. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (MIKE CASSESE)

Leafs Beat

Leafs finding ways to win with less Add to ...

At the time, it certainly seemed like the Toronto Maple Leafs were waving the white flag on their playoff run.

General manager Brian Burke had just traded Tomas Kaberle, as he joined Francois Beauchemin as the second big minute, top four defenceman to be dealt in the span of nine days.

With the Leafs six points out of the postseason and no replacements coming on the back end, that appeared to be as close as they would get.

"Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team here," Burke explained after the deal was made. "We're trying to get in the playoffs the right way here.

"I think our players know we're not throwing in the towel."

That was on Feb. 18, with only 24 games to play and a grueling March schedule not far off.

But in the 20 games since Kaberle was shipped to the Boston Bruins for a first-round pick and prospect Joe Colborne, the Leafs have stayed hot, going 11-5-4 without the popular Czech veteran in the lineup.

Toronto has somehow been able to coax more out of less since Burke's February fire sale, loading a lot of its ice time on the back end on youngsters like Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson and still finding ways to win games.

And while the Leafs remain five points back of the final playoff spot and their chances remain slim heading into Saturday's game with the Ottawa Senators, running the table over the final four games and getting to 90 points is the goal.

It's one few thought possible six weeks ago.

"We think we can run the next four games - that's what our plan is," coach Ron Wilson said. "We have to hope [a team ahead of us]loses complete grip of the pole and it looks like a couple teams are thinking about that.

"We'd rather be higher up in the standings, but when you're pushing like this with positive energy, it's a lot easier to get ready for games than to go into it with a feeling of dread of letting a playoff spot go."

Given Toronto's record since dealing Kaberle and Beauchemin, an obvious conclusion would be that losing the two veterans didn't make a major impact.

A closer look at the games since the all-star break, however, tells a different story.

The Leafs' power play, for one, has been awful since Kaberle left, scoring 11 times in 87 attempts for a 12.6-per-cent success rate that is well down from 16.7 per cent with him in the lineup.

The penalty kill has remained its same awful self, hovering at 80 per cent since Beauchemin was dealt on Feb. 9.

Toronto has also been out shot in almost every game since the break, allowing more than 33 a game, roughly four more per game than in the season's first 49 games.

The Leafs have improved in other areas, however, few of which appear directly related to dumping two of their top four defencemen in midseason:

1. Goaltending: Wilson seems to have tired of the suggestion that his rookie netminder is the sole reason for his team's success, but James Reimer has been a big factor in his team's goals against dropping with a very young blueline in front of him.

"Obviously James is playing well, but I think the way we're playing, it wouldn't matter who was playing goal, to be honest with you," Wilson said.

2. Offence from the defence: Captain Dion Phaneuf has led the way in this department, but Luke Schenn and Gunnarsson have upped their production, too. Combined, the three have 11 goals and 29 assists in the last 29 games after scoring only 29 points in the Leafs' first 49 games.

3. Offence from the checking lines: Toronto's bottom-six forwards are producing roughly half a point more a game than they did before the all-star break, one benefit of having less of Colton Orr and more of Nazem Kadri.

4. Puck luck: Ten per cent of the Leafs' shots on goal since the all-star break have found the back of the net, which matches the shooting percentage the league-leading Vancouver Canucks have posted this season.

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