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The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a 6-1-1 run that has shot them up the Eastern Conference standings early, and Wednesday’s convincing 6-1 win over the Boston Bruins, in particular, has created considerable buzz in the media.

When the automatic doors slide open at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility, the dressing room is almost empty.

At the back, however, assistant coach Peter Horachek is engrossed at the whiteboard on the wall, diagramming play after play as young forward Richard Panik and netminder James Reimer look on intently.

It's a question-and-answer session, and soon defenceman Cody Franson – a long-time pupil of Horachek's dating to their days together in Nashville – joins in with some questions of his own.

"Is it our job to go over here once we're 3-on-3?" Franson asks as he points to one faceoff dot in the defensive zone.

"Well, there's no perfect scenario there," Horachek begins before detailing the various options for handling what began as an odd-man rush.

All three players – who play different positions – seem engrossed in the lesson, even at the end of a day filled with many.

In Toronto, this is once again becoming a time of optimism for the local team. The Leafs are on a 6-1-1 run that has shot them up the Eastern Conference standings early, and Wednesday's convincing 6-1 win over the Boston Bruins, in particular, has created considerable buzz in the media.

Typically the victims, Toronto surprisingly played the bully role this time around.

The Leafs have been here before. They started last season 11-5 after 16 games, a hot start that created a noticeable swagger among players – even as coach Randy Carlyle was pulling his hair out over how they were winning.

On the right end of the scoreboard, they were almost never on the right side of the play, spending so much time in their own end that their possession numbers were in the low 40s all year and their shots against totals approached NHL records.

Twelve months – and a humbling late-season collapse – later, self-satisfied is hardly the phrase that describes the mood in the dressing room.

Even the lopsided win over Boston – a nemesis team that embarrassed them earlier in the year and many times before – is dismissed as another two points and a fortunate outcome against a good opponent.

"I think we caught them on an off day," Horachek said. "And they've had a lot of injuries lately."

The easy thing to do with the Leafs success is go the cynical route. After all, they had 22 points after 16 games a year ago and finished with only 84, well out of the playoff race.

This year, they've got 20 after 16 and, with so many familiar faces, who's to say anything will be different?

If you examine the Leafs results closely, however, there's evidence of some significant changes – several of which can be attributed to Horachek's diligent work at the whiteboard.

It hasn't been pretty every night, but some of the numbers speak for themselves.

Outshot by eight shots per game a year ago, the Leafs have cut that down to a difference of 1.9.

Dead last in the NHL with only 42.3 per cent of the unblocked shot attempts at even strength in 2013-14, they're now up to 48.1 per cent in the early portion of the season.

Their record is also built far less on getting ridiculously high shooting and save percentages, making it more likely they can sustain their play.

There have been tangible improvements, in other words, even if Toronto remains below average in some of these areas and even if their 103-point pace is a shade generous given their play.

The players credit the improvement to their new system, which has put a particular emphasis on "backside pressure" – a hockey-ism for how a forward (or forwards) should backcheck the puck carrier as the play moves toward the defensive zone.

Backside pressure has become a must in the NHL as the speed of the game has increased. The sooner you can get on an opposing forward and "pressure" him to make a decision with the puck, the more likely you are to create a turnover or poor decision with the puck.

Giving offensive players time and space is a no-no, as is allowing an uncontested odd-man rush.

The Leafs, specifically, want to force teams at or before their blueline, and they don't want all of that to fall on their defence.

That means forwards like Panik have to be back and involved as quickly as possible.

Cutting down shots and chances against isn't always only to do with play in the defensive zone; in many cases, you can turn the play the other way a lot sooner than that.

"It's huge," Horachek said of backside pressure. "Huge. That's the biggest part of the game right now… you've got to have those numbers coming back so [the other teams] have to play the game differently."

"We're starting to do things the right way," Franson said. "It's our group committing to a disciplined style… Our forwards are the backbone to that and they've done a very good job."

Horachek calls the Leafs transition, from their old system to this one, a work in process. But what's encouraging, he said, is that there's such a willing audience.

In Toronto, he's found a group of players that are hungry to learn, wanting to win the right way and avoid the kind of collapses the franchise has become known for.

There have been bumps along the way, but even those have helped, in a sense.

"That's part of our team's growth," Horacheck said, explaining how a few "humbling" losses early got players' attention. "Our team's growing. I think there's a selective group of people in here that want to get better, and they're listening, and we're getting better in certain areas."