The Leafs went from dead last in the entire NHL in early November, to being competitive with only Carolina, to now being in the playoff mix in mid December. So what have they been doing right that has made this team virtually ubeatable in last 14 games? (The Leafs are 9-3-2 in the last 14 games).
Debateable. Do we have a legit 1st line? If we're going to start considering this Leafs team a playoff team, then do we have a legit top line? I don't know that we do, but a major reason why the Leafs have been so succesful lately is because we've had essentially two solid 2nd lines.
Alex Ponikarovsky - Matt Stajan - Phil Kessel
These guys have been really good, all of them have been productive. You expect Kessel to be good, but Ponikarovsky, typically a reliable 20 goal guy could hit 30 this year. He's still inconsistent, some games he makes a real impact and others he's invisible, but has been a quality support player for the Phil Kessel line and rarely gets caught out of position. Matt Stajan meanwhile is enjoying a career year. I think most people had Stajan pegged for 50-60 points, and he should be up around there, if he can maintain his current pace he could even hit 65-70 range.
Jason Blake - Mikhail Grabovski - Niklas Hagman
Our "2nd line" has been as good as our top line at 5 on 5 and is a big reason why the Leafs have been so hard to play against. A lot can be contributed to the fact that opposing teams will match their top D pairing out against Kessel which has given the Grabovski an oppurtunity to play against 2nd pairings, and so far they have really been taking advantage of that (knock on wood). Hagman is another guy who could reach 30 goals, and Grabovski is quietly chipping in offensively on a consistant basis. The enigmatic Jason Blake is on pace to put up around 50-55 points which would be a step back from last year but not terrible. If he can start to find the back of the net that would be great, but he brings a lot more to the table with his speed, aggressive forecheck, and work along the boards which has allowed Grabovski and Hagman to flourish.
Lee Stempniak - Wayne Primeau - Nikolai Kulemin
The "Checking Line". I love these guys, and they have been crucial in turning around the season. The injury to Johnny Mitchell, and inability for Rickard Wallin to score was a blessing in disguise because it gave Wayne Primeau an oppurtunity to play 3rd line, where he has been so solid. Nikolai Kulemin is probably the best defensive forward on the team, he backchecks like a madman, is constantly back clogging up the pass lanes in the neutral zone, he hits, he covers guys in front of his net and in the slot, basically he does everything you want a defensive specialist to do, and he does it to a T. Lee Stempniak has been really solid in this role too, and his speed and forecheck, along with the lethal shot of Nikolai Kulemin has made this line pretty good for secondary scoring, as they contribute every couple games or so with some offense too.
Jamal Mayers - Rickard Wallin/Christian Hanson - Colton Orr
Mayers has taken on a new role at this point in his career. Once a celebrated defensive winger, he's now almost a pure enforcer. Orr and Mayers have been good, and tough as 4th liners as the Leafs have come on, and I don't mind the way Jamal has been playing at all. The team is finally resembling the classic Brian Burke format: Top 6 - Bottom 6, and we've been really good.
The defense has been great as well, as Beauchemin and Komisarek have turned into absolute studs. With these two playing great, White playing consistantly well, and of course Kaberle leading the way our top 4 defensmen are so rock solid, and it really makes the Leafs tough to play against. Exelby and Finger have been pretty good too, no complaints from the bottom of the line up.
And a huge difference from the beginning of the year to now would have to be Vesa Toskala. He's been amazing and I owe him an apology for suggesting his NHL career was done. Vesa and Gustavsson have both proven to be solid recently, and if Monster can come back healthy then we should have the quality tandem that I envisioned going into this season when I picked the Leafs to finish in the top 8 in the eastern conference.