A Return to the Promised Land

Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul celebrate a goalPlayoffs: it’s about time.

The Leafs will make their first extended trip towards the Promised Land this spring after spending the last nine years in limbo.

After two failed attempts, they finally clinched a playoff spot at the expense of their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators.

In the process, they easily won this season’s edition of the “Battle for Ottawa”, winning four of the five matchups. This was also their second lopsided win in Ottawa, which just proves that Scotiabank Place really does have a soft spot for the Leafs.

I’m sure every team in the NHL would love a second home. It appears the Leafs have found one.

However, the game itself wasn’t one of the Leafs’ best efforts. They ultimately relied on James Reimer to steal the win. Reimer made 49 saves – the highest number of saves recorded by any goaltender in a single game this season – to secure his eighteenth win against six loses this season. Why anyone continues to doubt this kid is beyond my comprehension.

Reimer’s counterpart on the night, Craig Anderson, look absolutely amateurish in comparison. Anderson benefited from a controversial no-goal call, but he still surrendered four goals that were arguably routine at best. Having said this, Anderson remains the favourite to win the Vezina Trophy this season. I’m sure Sens fans are disappointed that this Anderson didn’t show up to play.

The win solidified Toronto’s hold on fifth place in the Eastern Conference while Ottawa now sits in seventh place. They may find it difficult to hold onto this spot with both the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets nipping at their heels.

A lot of the credit for the success of this season’s version of the Leafs is due to former general manager Brian Burke and current head coach Randy Carlyle.

Many of the key players on the team are either Burke acquisitions or guys who Burke called upon to fill the holes. You can put Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and Cody Franson among others into the former camp while Reimer falls into the latter camp.

Toronto could have easily pursued another goaltender – is Roberto Luongo available? – but management wisely decided to put their faith in Reimer. He’s rewarded them with big wins over New Jersey and Ottawa this week – the first time a goalie has really stolen some games for the Leafs since the days of Ed Belfour.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs winning without the explosive creativity of Kadri, the added leadership of Lupul and the secondary firepower of Franson. The Leafs don’t really have an elite, standout player. Instead, they’ve survived and thrived as a team full of good players.

For his part, Carlyle has taught the Leafs something former head coach Ron Wilson could never accomplish: how to kill a penalty. The improved defensive play of Toronto is a huge part of their success. Carlyle also deserves credit for injecting some toughness into the lineup. His decision to give Colton Orr and Mark Fraser – otherwise unlikely candidates for NHL playing time – important roles on the team has paid countless dividends.

The road ahead of Toronto is likely difficult, especially if they matchup against the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, the very fact that they’ve made it this far is a testament to their solid team play, wise management and (head)strong coaching staff.

My dad isn’t a big fan of Carlyle, but I truly believe he’s been the missing link this whole time.

Speaking of links, the Leafs will have to reschedule their golf season. Right now it’s all about the playoffs, baby.

Leafs fans, doubters, haters and closet lovers will soon rediscover why this city is the center of the hockey universe.

(I wonder if fans will start chanting “Go Leafs go!” at Blue Jays games?)

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Image courtesy of William Wilson | Blue Diaspora