Sorry, but it’s still taking some time to get our head around the fact the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t just visiting from the NHL’s land of the living dead but are actually back for good.
It’s always a bit quaint when a perpetually lousy team rises up, if only for a short period of time. There’s always a spasm of praise for a team’s determination, even if the expectation is that we’ll get back to the normal order of things soon enough. We’ve seen it this season with Columbus jumping suddenly into the playoff fray in the Western Conference before sliding out of sight in recent days. Edmonton, too, generally manages to tantalize for a few days before sliding back into a comfort zone in the nether regions of the West, as has been the case in recent days.
But the time is long past for that kind of regression from the Leafs, and love them or hate them (and there is rarely a gray area in this matter, especially in Canada, where the hockey media is concentrated in Toronto and every murmur and whisper emanating from the club is big news), the Leafs have all but punched their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Monday night, the Leafs surged ahead of the New York Rangers 3-1 and then, when it looked as though they might crumble after the Rangers tied it on some strong work by Rick Nash -- who had two goals on the night -- they bounced back and the oft-maligned Phil Kessel scored the winner. Actually, it’s the less-maligned Kessel these days as the Leafs continue to find ways to get the job done, even if they don’t have all their top-end players putting up top-end numbers. They are fourth in the league in scoring. They have the third-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league after being bottom dwellers in that important category for years. And, more important to long-suffering Leafs fans, they are nestled in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a four-point bulge on sliding sixth-place Ottawa.
We covered the Leafs for part of what could realistically be called their most recent "golden" age under Pat Quinn when the Leafs made the playoffs for six straight seasons from 1999 to 2004. Twice the team advanced to the Eastern Conference finals during that period. Those Leafs teams boasted bigger names -- Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph et al. -- but watching the Leafs’ effort against the Rangers Monday it was hard not to see certain similarities. Both Quinn and current head coach Randy Carlyle are old-school coaches who aren’t married to the idea that every win has to be 2-1 or 3-2. This Leafs team has benefited from scoring from up and down the lineup (Kessel’s winner was only his 12th goal of the season and his two-goal effort marked his first goals in 10 games). More than that, Carlyle’s team has displayed the kind of resiliency that has long been missing in Toronto, missing indeed since Quinn was making the Leafs regular playoff participants. That resiliency was on full display Monday night. And for the first time in almost a decade, Leaf fans can count on seeing it in the postseason.