January 21 2014 10:18AM
In this post: A hot sports taco.
For all their talk of sample size, it was the Corsi Mob who lacked the patience to see this thing through.
Against all doubt and snark to the contrary, the Toronto Maple Leafs have now won five straight games for the first time in seven years and look every bit the team they were in October, when they set the league ablaze. Low and behold, the Leafs are now firmly back in a playoff spot, where anyone watching the games knew they’d end up.
It turns out that a slump can be just that, and a few unlucky bounces aren’t indicative of a team tuning the coach out. Everything’s just fine, even if Fenwick says otherwise.
Oh yeah, they’ve been doing this without Dave Bolland and David Clarkson, too. Bolland could be back soon and it’s exciting to think what this team will look like with another body down the middle, one that will push Peter Holland back to the press box, for good.
And sure, Clarkson hasn’t been great. He hasn’t even been good. But if the numbers crowd wants some numbers, consider these: Clarkson is 50-games into a seven-year tenure, or 8.8 percent of the way into his deal. The numbers crowd screamed small sample when the Leafs started the season 10-4. If a fifth of the schedule can be thrown out, surely Clarkson’s inauspicious start can - and really, has to - be forgiven, too.
There’s no denying that the team went through hard times in November and December, on that everyone can agree. But maybe a defensive strategy that put a Stanley Cup ring on Randy Carlyle’s finger didn’t suddenly just stop working, but injuries and a really difficult schedule and some bad luck and some mid-season lethargy all set in.
Carlyle continued to preach his message – keep digging in, get the compete level up, try harder – reassuring his troops that they had the talent and need only apply it. The team has done just that and has clearly turned a corner. The results are resounding.
Topping the Devils in a shootout? No, New Jersey can’t win a shootout to save their lives, but this is a potential playoff team that the Call of Duty message boards are enamored with.
Beating Boston on the road? Talk about exorcising a demon at the team and franchise level; tell me that win won’t play a big role in the team’s confidence when late April rolls around.
The Sabres? You could write it off, if it didn’t now look like a trap game in the middle of an excellent stretch. A trap game the Leafs survived, by the way.
An emphatic win against the rival Canadiens? With playoff seeding implications? Against some of the men the nation will trust to bring home gold a month from now? Good luck blogging your way around the relevance of that win.
And finally we get to Monday, and rest assured these aren’t the old Coyotes. The Leafs got to another Team Canada goalie for a four-spot on just 29 shots and yes, their Corsi was probably bad (I can’t be bothered to look up the numbers, but they were outshot 41-29 because the team got less aggressive, as any well-coached team with a lead would). Even Carlyle wasn’t willing to let his team get comfortable – ever the motivator, the coach said the team was “not bearing down hard enough.” In their fifth straight win. That’s the kind of message and culture that pays dividends in the playoffs.
If the blogging crowd wants to criticize mainstream media (you know, the guys watching the game in person, who talk to the players and can feel out the locker room) for anything, it should be for burying the lede: Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin and a pick for Jonathan Bernier looks like the steal of the summer. Scrivens was dealt for a late pick, Frattin lives in the press box and Bernier is one of the best goalies in the NHL. Critics? Crickets.
Bernier had 39 saves again on Monday, pushing his save percentage to .927. That’s fifth among qualified keepers and third among those with 30 or more appearances. The confidence he gives this team is immeasurable, letting them play a smart system that gives up low-quality shots in favor of stopping high-quality chances, because their keeper has no problem with volume. Short of Tyler Bozak since he’s come back and galvanized the offense, Bernier is this team’s MVP.
I guess it really comes down to what kind of fan of this team you want to be. The Leafs rank 30th in Corsi (I caved and looked it up), but it doesn’t take a spreadsheet to see that the numbers don’t bear out what this team’s all about. Fourth in the Atlantic, fifth in the Eastern Conference and on a streak of five straight quality wins. You can ignore the track record of Carlyle’s success and pour through the numbers to find cause for doubt. Or you can trust what your eyes have been showing you for two weeks, that this team is finally receiving the message and getting back to playing the same brand of hockey that saw them start 11-4.
Or, you know, give up altogether and just play NHL 2014.