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Mirtle: Maple Leafs somehow keep finding a way to bank points

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier (left) and Phil Kessel celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday January 28, 2014.


Leave it to Jonathan Bernier to cut through some of the bunkum and lay out what's what with the Toronto Maple Leafs these days.

A newcomer to the organization by way of the recent Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the 25-year-old netminder has been nothing if not frank about his NHL team's play in front of him this season, pointing out at times they have allowed too many opportunities or had key breakdowns.

Refreshingly, in these times of canned quotes and clichés, he tells it like it is.

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So it was again after practice Wednesday, when Bernier reflected back on how the Leafs had played in a wild 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving his team a firmer hold on a playoff spot.

He knew, for example, they had been outshot heavily – 29-16 in the first two periods alone – and were fortunate to have several other chances clank off the posts.

"We're still giving up a lot of scoring chances," Bernier said. "Especially our last game [Tuesday against Tampa] wasn't our best one. But we're coming out with wins, which is the most important part.

"But I think if we want to be successful in the playoffs, I've been through that, and you've really got to bear down defensively and be a good defensive team."

That's been a familiar refrain this season – from both the coaches and players – and it's evidenced in really any statistics you want to look at. For all their success lately, the Leafs are still giving up more shots and more goals than last season, with their goal differential dropping substantially.

Those typically aren't the type of shifts you see for a team that's as high as Toronto is in the standings (they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, after finishing fifth a year ago).

But very little about the Leafs' season through 55 games, at least on paper, makes a whole lot of sense. In addition to allowing more goals, they're scoring fewer – with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk's great campaigns only just getting Toronto to league average in goal production.

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And the penalty killing unit that was such a strength last season, has gone from second best to second worst.

The only significant areas the Leafs have actually improved on over last season are on the power play and in the shootout – which is why so many opponents have been dumbfounded when they leave games against Toronto empty-handed.

"I thought we played really well," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after Tuesday's loss. "I don't know how many 2-on-1s we had, but I bet it was four or five. … I don't know how many posts we hit, but there was bunch."

You can look at where the Leafs are right now one of two ways:

Either they can play better than their season-long numbers suggest and the fact they've banked so many points while not at the top of their game is simply an enormous positive that will pay off come a gruelling post-Olympics schedule.

Or this is what they are, and the final 27 games will be a bumpy ride to see if they can continue to scrap out points in odd ways and make the postseason.

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For their part, the players sound prepared for a real dogfight to the end, especially Bernier, who admits he is still getting used to all the rubber he sees every night.

"It's a totally different system that we're playing here," the goaltender said. "In L.A., it was really protecting the house and leaving a [defender] in front all the time. Here, it's more an aggressive mindset, maybe five guys in the corner, so, sometimes, you have guys sneaking behind.

"It is a different system so, obviously, shots are coming from different angles."

"Different" is an apt description of how Toronto has thus far found ways to win, too, especially compared to last season.

Leafs watch: 10 key stats

Last season

This season

On pace for

97 points (9th)

92 points (14th)

Goals for

3.02 (6th)

2.71 (16th)

Goals against

2.67 (17th)

3.02 (26th)

Shot differential

–6.0 (30th)

–8.7 (30th)

Possession rating

43.7 per cent (29th)

42.8 per cent (29th)

Power play

18.7 per cent (14th)

22 per cent (4th)

Penalty kill

87.9 per cent (2nd)

77.1 per cent (29th)

Shooting percentage

11.5 per cent (1st)

9.8 per cent (T-6th)

Save percentage

.917 (T-7th)

.917 (7th)

Shootout wins

0 (T-30th)

9 (1st)

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