Undefeated Maple Leafs Turning Heads, But Can Hot Start Last?
Yes, the team that finished 29th in the NHL last season are off to a start nobody believed could happen.
Toronto has stormed out of the gate with four straight victories, erasing memories of last season's horrendous start. Let's not forget, it took the Leafs 15 games before they notched win number three last year.
To add fire to the early-season hopes, the last time the Leafs started the season this strong in 1999-2000, they ended up winning the Northeast Division title.
And the team's latest win Friday night in New York against the Rangers certainly gives Leaf fans pause to think back to the good old days of the 1993-94 season, when the Maple Leafs went unbeaten in their first four games en route to 10 consecutive victories.
So what gives?
A lot of things have had to come together for this surprise start, including luck, which anyone will tell you is a big part of the game.
First is goaltending.
By this time last year, Vesa Toskala had earned the right to steal former Canadiens goalie Andre Racicot's dubious nickname, "Red Light Racicot." Last season, Toskala was certainly deserving of the "red light" moniker as opposing players lit the lamp behind him with ease.
In contrast, veteran J.S. Giguere has solidified Toronto's goaltending. And just as important, he has taken the pressure off back-up Jonas Gustavsson, which is allowing the young goaltender to learn the ropes at his own pace.
Next on the list is scoring.
In the 4-3 triumph over Pittsburgh on Wednesday, 10 different Leafs found their way onto the score sheet. A year ago, that would have never happened. Back then, scoring by committee was more theory than reality.
The Maple Leafs are getting goals from summer pick-ups like Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur in particular has been a revelation on the second line. He, along with Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, gives the Leafs solid secondary scoring, something the team was sorely lacking last season.
Special teams are also doing what they're supposed to do -- put the puck in and keep the puck out.
Toronto's penalty killers, among the worst in the NHL last season, are grouped in with the best at this early point of the season. Through their 4-0 start, the penalty killing success rate currently sits at an impressive 93 per cent.
Last and by no means least is what you don't see on the scoreboard or in black and white in the standings.
When it became apparent that something was horribly wrong with his team, general manager Brian Burke dealt with the so-called "Blue and White disease" -- the lackadaisical approach to winning that infected previous Leaf teams.
You won't find this malady in the Mayo Clinic's list of deadly illnesses but what Burke has done is chase away the players who cared more about playing for themselves than they did about doing what it takes to win.
Having guys who care about winning is perhaps the most important dynamic that's changed in the Maple Leafs dressing room from this time last year. It has certainly shown in the added hustle, shot-blocking, and determination that's been injected by muckers like Tim Brent and Mike Brown. And the attitude change has given the paying public reason to believe that Ron Wilson hasn't lost it as an NHL head coach who can motivate his troops.
As for the future, Burke made a move that bodes well for Toronto as he plots how to make the playoffs. By sending defenceman Jeff Finger to the minors, Burke cleared about $4.73 million in much-needed cap space. The GM is now in a better position to acquire a scorer than he was when his team began the season.
So will the Leafs' success last?
No, but it doesn't matter.
The fact the Leafs are 4-0 is a welcomed surprise, and gives long-suffering Leaf fans some much needed hope.
"Everyone keeps bringing up last year," defenceman Dion Phaneuf said after beating Pittsburgh. "Well, it doesn't really matter right now. We're focused on this group and this year."
Enjoy the ride, while it lasts.