Grinding it out

Grinding it out

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AP Photo/Bill Boyce

Led by Phil Kessel and Ben Scrivens, another good “part game” from the Maple Leafs proved enough to escape St. Louis with the two points and put the Buds into a tie with Pittsburgh for second overall in the league standings, and first in the East.

That really is something, as outside of their win against Pittsburgh, we’re still awaiting that ever elusive convincing, 60-minute performance. Nevertheless, the Leafs sit 10-5-1. Let’s talk about how they got here; it certainly is an interesting story.

First, the good: the Leafs have scored 2.94 goals per game, good for ninth in the league, and are seventh in the league in points percentage.

Now, the bad, the ugly and the unbelievable: they’ve achieved this in spite of the fourth worst goals against per game rate, a 27th ranked penalty kill, and a 17th ranked powerplay.

Further, last night’s 44-22 shot count in the Blues’ favour is the biggest negative differential for the Leafs this season. Overall, the Leafs are 21st in shots allowed per game. In shots for, they’re 25th.

What if I told you before the season that the Leafs would be a bottom five team in penalty killing, shots for, and goals against, and below the median on the powerplay, come the sixteen game mark? You’d hope to be .500, and would probably laugh if I told you the Leafs would post a record of 10-5-1 in spite of these numbers.

How did they do it? Some nights, like Scrivens against St. Louis and Columbus or Reimer against Montreal in the opener, it’s been really good goaltending. Others, like their 6-5 win over Ottawa or their 5-4 OT win over Montreal, it’s been their high scoring offence. We’ve seen these respective elements collaborate beautifully (Pittsburgh), and we’ve also seen them disappear at points, sometimes both at once, like in their collective 12-1 loss on Saturday and Tuesday. But give them credit, somehow so far, they’ve simply got it done more often than not.

The Leafs are an interesting case, a statistical anomaly in many a sense. Unfortunately, something about it just doesn’t spell “SUSTAINABLE,” and you worry the drop off could be rather harsh.

Fortunately, statistics can only make suggestions about the future. They only tell us what has happened, and not necessarily what will. A story discerned from the stats sixteen games into the season doesn’t account for the possibility of improvement. In the Leafs’ case, the return of James Reimer, Tim Connolly for any length of time, and Colby Armstrong to an ineffectual third line, present real possibilities for positive growth. So too does a penalty kill that still has to be given time, given it’s operating within a new system and under a new coach. For whatever reason, the post-lockout Leafs have also shown a distinct pattern of playing better later in the season.

Maybe that last part won’t be the case this time around. But last night the Leafs tied last November’s win total with their third victory this month. What the Leafs are doing well is building themselves a cushion, and it could be the difference between a long awaited return to the playoffs and a seventh straight early April date with the golf course.

Ultimately, they are finding ways to win games. And until that isn’t the case, we can’t really complain, can we?

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]