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Maple Leafs stick to rebuilding plan after win over Detroit Red Wings

Traditionally, this is where it gets away from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They have a promising team that is starting to overachieve, with this group beating the Detroit Red Wings 5-4 in overtime Sunday in the big NHL outdoor game at BMO Field in front of an announced crowd of 40,148. The win streak is now five games, the first time the Leafs have won that many in a row since December of 2014. What traditionally follows is often an unexpected playoff run and then the latest rebuilding plan goes out the window. Then comes the inevitable crash and the resulting firings.

This edition of the Leafs is the youngest and most talented crop since the early 1970s, with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner making like a latter-day Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald. Now, with this winning streak it looks as though they are figuring out how to fix those third-period letdowns that cost them more than a few games this season.

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Read more: Leafs score OT winner to capture Centennial Classic

Read more: BMO Field's hat trick: Three sports, four games, five weeks, one stadium

After two periods of dull hockey on Sunday, the Leafs had a comeback, a letdown and another comeback for the win, which left them with a 17-12-7 record and in striking distance of a wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

"It's been a lot of fun. We have a lot of young guys on our team that are all experiencing this together," Marner said. "There's still a lot of guys from that team that made the playoffs [in 2013] and had that heartbreak against Boston.

"We all want to make the playoffs and go far in them. We've just got to take it game-by-game so far."

And this is where management steps in to make sure everyone knows this will not be the same old Leafs' 18-wheeler wreck. Yes, Sunday's outdoor game was all kinds of thrills packed in the third period with the Leafs getting quick goals from Marner, Connor Brown and Matthews to take a 4-1 lead, gave back the lead with Matthews's line on the ice for two of Detroit's three goals and then dominated overtime with Matthews ripping the game-winner for his 20th goal of the season. But no one is going to get ahead of themselves.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock allowed that winning the game was a whole lot of fun but no one is thinking playoffs. This management team is sticking to the slow-but-sure plan and the eight rookies in Sunday's lineup will continue to develop at the proper pace.

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"No, what we're going to do is what we always do," Babcock said. "We're just going to try and get better every day. What happens is your team gets better and better, the competitive people get better and better, and the non-competitive people got to find someplace else to play.

"That's just what happens in the good programs. We have aspirations to be a really good team in the National Hockey League, one that in the summer you know you're going to make the playoffs. That's not where we're at right now."

But as learning experiences go, Babcock said, the outdoor game was a great one for his youngsters. With the hype and the size of the crowd it was the closest they have been to an NHL playoff experience. And he let them learn.

Anthony Mantha gave the Red Wings a first-period lead and Leaf veteran Leo Komarov tied the score in the second. Then the Leafs' kids grabbed the lead and gave it away on Detroit goals from Jonathan Ericsson, Dylan Larkin and Mantha again before Matthews won it. And on the ice chasing the Red Wings around as they tied the game were the kids such as Matthews, Marner, Brown and company.

"At playoff time ... you're either up one or down one," Babcock said. "It's the same every night. You've got to love the duress, you've got to love the grind, you've got to love digging in and knowing you're going to get it done. That was a good opportunity for our team because we haven't had those kinds of opportunities.

"We got a lesson here tonight and still won the game. Today's way different than every other game. We've been building this up for three days. We've got a bunch of kids on our team. If you're Nazem [Kadri] or Leo [Komarov] and you're sitting on the bench and the coach is playing those other guys instead of you and you're saying what's he doing?

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"Because I'm giving [Matthews and Brown] the opportunity. They got two goals in the third, I'm giving them a chance to shut out the game. We had an opportunity here in a big game, we gave them that opportunity."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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