They have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They have not made the playoffs since the 2003-2004 season. They are not the first team that comes to mind when you consider the elite teams of the National Hockey League but they are currently ranked 6th in the Eastern Conference and 2nd in their division. They are the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs have an impressive 14-9-2 record and 30 points in the first 25 games of the season and sit a mere 4 points back of Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference lead. Toronto has the 2nd best powerplay in the league with 22 goals scored on the man advantage and they can pull within 2 points of 1st in the conference with a victory tonight in Boston. Their early season success is in large part due to the fact that they have recieved offence from numerous sources and the Leafs best players have performed well above expectations.
There is no question that Phil Kessel has been the driving force for the Buds thus far. Kessel is currently the leagues leading scorer with 16 goals and 32 points and is on pace to shatter his career highs. He also ranks fourth in the league with 3 game winning goals on the year and is ranked ninth in powerplay scoring with 4 goals with the extra attacker. Kessel has done it all this season with phenomenal offensive and much improved defensive play. He has been making the right decisions on and off the ice along with taking appropriate risks that would be beneficial to the team. Kessel's linemate Joffrey Lupul has also been a pleasant surprise this season. Before the campaign began Lupul made it clear that he wanted to score at least 20 goals by seasons end, however he may surpass that mark by Christmas! The Fort Saskatchewan, AB native has already lit the lamp 12 times and has tallied 30 points. The deal that GM Brian Burke swung with the Ducks to land Lupul has really paid its dividends. Together Kessel and Lupul have combined to be the best offensive duo in the league notching 28 goals and a whopping 72 points.
The genius of Burke's ways is on display once again in the form of defenceman Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf has been a point-getting machine this season totalling 18 points while adding 3 goals. This is by far Phaneuf's best year in Toronto since the 26 year old was acquired from the Calgary Flames in one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history. In that trade the Leafs also landed prospect defenceman Keith Aulie who has recently been recalled from the Marlies to replace the injured Mike Komisarek. Offseason acquisition D John-Michael Liles has also contributed to the early season success with 3 goals and 16 points.
If the Leafs will indeed end this 7 year playoff drought they must maintain their stellar play throughout the entire 82 game season. Kessel must continue to step up in the clutch and consistently produce points and scoring chances for his hockey team. The great chemistry between Kessel and Lupul may be the key to Toronto's succces thus far meaning it is crucial for this bond to strengthen. However one person cannot single handedly lift a team into the post season. In order for Toronto to make the playoffs they will need improved play from secondary sources such as the likes of Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly, Clarke MacArthur,Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The return of a healthy James Reimer will definitely be beneficial for the Leafs playoff chances and hopefully Reimer can build on the 4-0-1 record he posted in the 5 games he has played this season.
The Leafs early season success has finally given Leafs fans something to cheer about and is encouraging in every way possible. However there are sill 57 games left on the Buds schedule and many tough hurdles that still must be overcome. There is currently no way of knowing what the Leafs fate will be at the end of the season but i do know one thing is certain. If the Maple Leafs can play anywhere near consistent hockey moving forward, the postseason drought will finally meet its end.
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