As the Toronto Maple Leafs head into the unofficial second half of the season after the All-Star break, hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since pre-lockout are alive and strong.
The chemistry between Leafs wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul led them to become one of the most dangerous duos on the scoresheet. Both players sit in the top 10 in league scoring, and both were invited to the All-Star game along with team captain Dion Phaneuf.
The ability to stay out of the penalty box is something the Leafs have worked on this past month. Their penalty kill percentage is still the worst in the league, but the team managed to maintain a clean January and not allow any power play goals during the month.
Depth is also a key factor for the Maple Leafs due to the multiple transactions made by GM Brian Burke. Players like Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner are being forced to fight for spots on the roster—a situation unheard of in years past.
The main strain on this team since the start of the season is the question of the starting goaltender. James Reimer, deemed the team’s saviour after a spectacular performance during the second half of the 2010/11 season, suffered a concussion after a hit from the Montréal Canadiens’ Brian Gionta last October 22. Reimer has not played the same since returning from injury, registering a .899 SV% in 18 games played this season compared to his .921 SV% in the 37 games played last season.
Blowing leads is something the Leafs need to work on as well. In two games in January, the Leafs allowed a tying goal in the last 15 seconds of regulation. Although they defeated the Islanders in overtime, they lost to the Penguins in the shootout and gave unnecessary points to two Eastern Conference teams.
Putting pressure on tough teams, such as the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins, is also key for the remainder of the season, since the Bruins have defeated the Leafs in their three matchups so far this season.
In order to maintain a playoffs position and lead into the post-season, the Leafs need to establish a strong, consistent roster and a definite starting goaltender. Post-season action is what Maple Leafs fans have been longing for. For a franchise that hasn’t seen playoffs in almost 10 years, the team is finally giving fans something to cheer about.