There are lots of ways to win hockey games. The way the Maple Leafs won in Denver on Thursday night fits into the "textbook" category – and it earned the team two points and a shiny red apple. It showed exactly what this club can do when it sets its mind to it. And, of course, it continues to twist the knife into the question, "What if James Reimer had been with the big club all year?" Let’s move forward, not thinking about that – because anxiety attacks don’t serve any beneficial purpose.
The Leafs suffered their only misstep early – when they gave up the first goal to Avalanche forward David Winnik. Come to think of it, that is textbook for the Leafs lately this season. Give up the first goal, then claw back into the game. That’s exactly what the Leafs did – when Nik Kulemin did what he must do. He scored. Getting scoring from their supposed "scorers" hasn’t been Toronto’s strong suit all year. It was in Colorado.
Then Kulemin scores at the end of the first period. Less than a minute to go. They say that’s the backbreaker for any team. The Leafs come back to take the lead and they do it with a killer goal. Textbook.
They get a standout performance from the aformentioned Reimer. Great goaltending, of course, textbook for a winning team. And, whether fans are prepared to accept it or not, a winning team is what the Leafs have been since the beginning of February. Do they rely too much on Reimer’s greatness behind them? Maybe they do. Then again, the Islanders relied on Billy Smith’s greatness. The New Jersey Devils have relied on Martin Brodeur’s greatness forever. It’s OK for the Leafs to play that card any time they want.
And, of course, no textbook performance would be complete without the tough-as-nails defenceman handing out a few hits, then using his stick like a poleaxe on the star player’s face. I felt bad for Paul Stastny. But not too bad. It’s funny – the meaner Dion Phaneuf gets, the better the Leafs play. And let’s not forget much-maligned Mike Komisarek’s fists in rookie Cameron Gaunce’s face. It was a tide-turning fight. I was sitting one row in front of Gaunce’s parents, at an OHL game in Mississauga’s Hershey Centre when they read about the fight on their Blackberrys. Smiles did not abound. Textbook – and mildly humourous.
When Phil Kessel scored the insurance goal early in the third, I thought "Yep, that’s about right. Phil gets a power-play goal to complete the Leafs’ perfect game." The cherry on top was Reimer’s furious save flury at the end, as Colorado tried desperately to prove they are not the league doormat. They failed.
The Denver game was a beautiful example of what this Leafs’ team can do when it’s hitting on all cylinders. Of course, that’s a lot easier to pull off against the 29th-place team in the league than it is against, say, the fourth place team. That test for Toronto comes in Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night against Mike Babcock’s Wings.
Will the Leafs pass that tough test? With only seven games left, they have to. And these Leafs, unlike many blue and white teams in the past, seem to have grasped the gravity of their position. If they win out, it would leave the Leafs with 92 points – and a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.
But that, based on where the club was two months ago, would be decidedly un-textbook.