Friday November 18th, 2016

TORONTO — It’s been said that one has to be good to be lucky. If that’s the case, the Toronto Maple Leafs were very, very good on Thursday night.

There was a hashtag floating around Twitter during the Leafs’ win over the Nashville Predators earlier in the week: #TheLeafsAreActuallyGood

Equal parts surprise and underappreciated fact, that hashtag showed no signs of slowing in momentum Thursday as Toronto beat up on the Florida Panthers for a 6-1 win, the third straight home win in which the Leafs scored six goals.

The Maple Leafs scored three times in the first period, two of which were goals former Toronto goaltender James Reimer certainly would like to have back. The first, a Connor Brown redirection was one Reimer looked to have caught but then trickled in. The second, less than ten minutes later, came when Brown somehow eluded Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad along the boards and threw an errant shot on net. It didn’t look threatening, but still found its way past Reimer.

Call it luck, or perhaps chalk it up to a goalie overcome with the emotion of returning to play against the team that drafted him. But either way, when Brown is racking up four points in one game, the first time of his career he’s done so, it’s clear something is clicking for the Leafs. 

So maybe there’s more than just luck here. There is a vibe, a swagger, perhaps, that is noticeable on a team that so many wrote off as lottery pick-bound before the season.

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Yes, it’s time to believe the hashtag. 

“We think that we can beat anybody in this league,” said defenseman Morgan Rielly, who had an assist and was +3 on the night. “If you have that attitude every day, long story short, you want to be playing in May and June. That’s how we feel. Each day that’s how we prepare. That’s how we want to play.”

Maybe it should come as no surprise then that the Maple Leafs are thinking about the playoffs. 

Toronto coach Mike Babcock said his goal for this team was to get six points out of every five games. When you do the math, the win at home now has them just one point short of that goal on the season, with 19 through 17 games. And what do you know, right on the door step of a wild card spot, just one point back of the Boston Bruins. Stranger things have happened but the Leafs’ run as of late isn’t so strange at all.

They’re a top five team in even-strength shots for per 60 minutes and lead the NHL in even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes goals per game which has translated into being a top five team in goals for per game. The team they’re tied with is the team they face on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens.

“We’re comfortable here,” said Brown said of the Air Canada Centre where the Leafs are now 7-2-0 at home on the season. “We’re getting better and better with each game we play.”

If the improvement Brown speaks of continues, perhaps a playoff birth isn’t out of the question.

Of note, all six of the Toronto goals on the night came at even-strength. The Panthers grew frustrated as the game continued, most notably Ekblad, who drew two penalties totaling six minutes and voiced anger with both calls. The Maple Leafs managed to not only stay calm but structured, which has been one of the biggest causes for concerns for them as of late. Their play in their own zone has looked shaky at times. It’s an obvious point of concern for the team and for Babcock, but they believe they’re on the right track.

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“At home we play the game we want to play and on the road we play a little reckless,” said Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner, who scored an absolute stunner on a breakaway. He now has 16 points through 17 games. “I think we’re getting better with that though and Montreal’s going to be a big test for us.”

If there’s any player that can stop a team that has scored six goals in three of their last four games, it’s Canadiens goalie Carey Price. But don’t forget, this is the same Toronto team that played one of its best games of the season in a 2-1 early season loss to the Canadiens. 

The offense has been there as of late. It’s up to the team now to continue their fast-paced approach but balance that with sound defensive play.

If it does, those that doubted the Maple Leafs early on may have to rescind. But this Maple Leafs team might have known what they were capable of all along.

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