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Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate an empty-net goal by Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews during third period NHL hockey action, in Toronto on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate an empty-net goal by Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews during third period NHL hockey action, in Toronto on Saturday, April 8, 2017. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With playoffs clinched, Toronto Maple Leafs arrive somewhere special way ahead of schedule Add to ...

Even in the long-ago days of oh, say last October, when the Toronto Maple Leafs were as likely to blow a third-period lead as to keep it, James van Riemsdyk still figured he and his teammates were headed somewhere special.

“Through the first couple of games you could tell we had a lot of potential,” he said. “You still need to do something with it, go out there and perform, but you could see early on the potential we had as a team.”

Somewhere special arrived Saturday night when the Maple Leafs clinched their first NHL playoff spot since 2013 and first postseason berth from a full 82-game schedule since 2004. Fittingly, the key goals in the 5-3 comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins came from the Leafs’ bumper crop of rookies: Kasperi Kapanen, who scored his first NHL goal at 14:30 of the third period to tie the score, Connor Brown with the winner almost three minutes later, capped by Auston Matthews with his 40 of the season into an empty net.

The only downer was the loss of No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen. He was hit on the head by Penguins forward Tom Sestito, a lumberjack on skates whose presence in the NHL is a complete mystery let alone on a team as skilled as the Penguins. The Leafs said Sunday Andersen did not have any concussion symptoms and they hope he can start the playoffs for them. But he did not dress for Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Backup Curtis McElhinney, who was superb in relief of Andersen on Saturday, got the Sunday start against his former team.
 

For Leaf veterans such as van Riemsdyk, 27, who’s been with the team since 2012, or even Morgan Rielly, who is in his fifth season at the age of 23, it’s been an enjoyable ride watching this young team, with eight rookies on the roster, quickly grasp what it takes to succeed in the NHL.
“I think it’s pretty cool to see,” van Riemsdyk said. “Earlier in the year we showed flashes of it, how we need to play. It’s a matter of doing it consistently and doing it the right way.”

Rielly arrived in the wake of the Leafs’ awful collapse in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins in May, 2013. In his rookie season, the Leafs were supposed to take the next step after finally becoming a playoff team only to drive off yet another cliff and precipitate the biggest housecleaning in franchise history.

There were no bright spots in the next three years as Leafs president Brendan Shanahan stripped the team bare and started over. Rielly admitted there were times it was no fun reporting for work.

“I think I’ve used that analogy before where you’re not in [the playoff race], you’re out of it, you haven’t won a game in two weeks, you’re going to practice and it can be tough mentally,” he said. “But it’s all part of the grind. My dad and my brother have days where they don’t want to go into work either, but they do it.

“So we did it. We tried to get better.”

Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello shifted the rebuild job into a higher gear this season after the last-place finish in 2015-16 netted Matthews with the first overall draft pick. With Matthews and fellow flashy rookies Mitch Marner and William Nylander, along with Andersen, the new No. 1 goaltender, and holdovers including Nazem Kadri, van Riemsdyk and Rielly, the Leafs were expected to be much better.

However, not many expected to see a playoff spot this fast. But Matthews exploded out of the gate with four goals in his first NHL game and is now the leading contender for the NHL's rookie-of-the-year award. No one will be surprised if Marner or Nylander are finalists behind Matthews.

By December, the Leafs led the league in blown third-period leads. Then the worm turned for the youngsters, who began to apply the defensive lessons preached by head coach Mike Babcock and his assistants. By Saturday, the Leafs had a 14-7-15 record in games in which they held the lead after two periods. The 15 overtime and shootout losses represent some of those blown leads but they are also an indication this team can be much better next season and beyond.

Given the large number of players in their teens and early 20s, it is no surprise the Leafs quickly became a close-knit team this season. That, too, played into their success.

“Guys are getting used to one another, guys are getting used to playing with each other,” Rielly said. “Being around everyone on a day-to-day basis is often an area where you have to be comfortable.

“This is a close team. There’s been moments where we’ve got a good thing going, we’re all committed to working towards the same goal and it’s a good feeling.”

While playoff talk concerning the Leafs did not become serious until well after Christmas, a look back at their monthly record shows the potential was there much earlier. After a 2-4-3 run in October, the Leafs were never below .500 in any subsequent month, with February’s 5-5-4 mark their worst stretch.

“The way these guys push each other and the way the coaching staff pushes the guys, it’s going to be hard not to get better and better,” said centre Brian Boyle, the second-oldest player on the team at 32. His arrival near the trade deadline on Feb. 27 to bolster the Leafs’ fourth line and leadership group was a sign management decided the team was a playoff contender ahead of schedule.

“We got better just in the few weeks I’ve been here,” Boyle said. “So it’s not just year-to-year you get better. It’s a good thing to be a part of.”

Even in a profession rife with obsessive characters, Babcock is a driven sort. That is why, a few hours before a game last week, he was not interested in discussing any feeling of accomplishment.

“I think, probably this summer, we’ll have a spiced rum by the lake and get a chance to do that,” he said. “But in the meantime, we got a game tonight.”

Babcock showed much more excitement after Saturday’s big win over the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“I'm proud of the guys; I'm excited for the guys,” he said. “They've done a good job. I told the coaches at the start of the year if we got in it was going to be [Sunday] in game 82. I thought it would be like this – you have to really crawl in at the end. We're one game ahead of schedule.

“But, to be honest with you, I didn't know the kids could be this good.”

Follow David Shoalts on Twitter: @dshoalts

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