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Nikhil Daljeet

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Photo: Terry Gilliam/AP

The NHL’s best team prepares to take on the league’s second worst at the Air Canada Centre tonight.  That sentence alone should bring a smile to every Leafs fan’s face, regardless of the significant portion of the season that has yet to be played.  Of course, even though the Bruins are currently among the bottom feeders in the NHL, the reigning Stanley Cup champs will surely be a tough test for Toronto’s young club.  With starting goalie James Reimer still recovering from whiplash, Ben Scrivens will get his second consecutive start.  More surprisingly, Luke Schenn will sit as a healthy scratch, allowing Cody Franson to draw back into the lineup alongside rookie Jake Gardiner.

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Photo: John Ulan/The Canadian Press

As we all know far too well, the Leafs early-season record since the lockout has ranged from dismal to catastrophic.  At the conclusion of the first month of play, we’re typically floundering on the edges of a playoff spot or in the deepest chasms of the Eastern Conference.  So far, this year is markedly different.  In fact, this is the first time Toronto has made it out of October with seven victories in exactly a decade, having last accomplished the feat in the 2001-2002 season that saw them hit 100 points (eventually losing to the Hurricanes in the conference finals).

But if this franchise has learned anything in its recent stretch of ineptitude, it’s that a successful season cannot be had on the back of one strong month.  Rather, the teams that are perennial playoff features in the NHL do so through year-long consistency.  As a unit, this team will need to avoid lengthy losing streaks through whatever means possible.  Because sadly, while a fantastic month guarantees nothing, a disastrous one can be fatal.

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Photo: Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

It’s eight games into the season.  Phil Kessel is still the league’s leading goal scorer, the Leafs remain on top of their division, and Jonas Gustavsson is still trying to edge his career back onto the right path.  The Monster was solid in the 4-2 loss, using his large frame and naturally quick reflexes to make a few spectacular saves.  Yes, the reason Toronto lost last night’s game lies elsewhere (chiefly on the shoulders of a certain cherrypicking Czech) but Gustavsson was not perfect.

The reason Gustavsson’s potential has and always will be extremely high is because of the gifts he was born with: exceptional size and elite reflexes that are most often shown in his acrobatic cross-crease saves.  When he first crossed the pond and tantalized Toronto fans with glimpses of this potential early on, we were witness to a netminder that seemed to move without thinking, darting around his crease and employing his frame to a distinct advantage.

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Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star

A depleted Toronto team will take to the ice in Montreal tonight hoping to bounce back from an ugly outing against the Bruins.  While Clarke MacArthur will be drawing back into the lineup, the Leafs forwards that find themselves among the injured include Connolly, Armstrong and most recently Tyler Bozak.  Bozak took a shot off the foot late in the Boston game, and although he maintains that he’ll be a game-time decision, early reports suggest that Matthew Lombardi will be taking his spot on the top line.  James Reimer will also draw back in against a team that he shutout just a few weeks ago.  Finally, Mike Komisarek will return to man the blueline against his former club, as Toronto’s plethora of capable defenders represent a sharp contrast to the dwindling depth at forward.

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Photo: Nathan Denette/The CP

Toronto will face off against the newly reincarnated Jets at the Air Canada Centre tonight.  Winnipeg finally picked up their first win of the season on their fourth try, having scored only 7 goals over that span.  Offense will be a struggle all year long for a Jets team that features former Leafs Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood in their top six.  At the other side of the ice, the Leafs have their usual set of publicized “concerns” that evaporate as quickly as they arise in the early days of hockey season in Toronto.  As such, there’s a number of storylines going into tonight’s matchup, with the biggest being: will the Grabovski line start scoring soon? (spoiler: the answer is yes.)  Has Luke Schenn lost his way?  Did the Jets need to charter two separate planes to carry both Byfuglien and Wellwood?

Yes, these are all ridiculous questions mired in hyperbole.  Different city, different jersey, but these are the same Atlanta Thrashers that have seemed to engage the Leafs in some exciting, high-scoring affairs in recent years.  James Reimer will get the start in net tonight and Jake Gardiner will draw back into the lineup at the expense of Cody Franson.

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Photo - Mike Cassese/Reuters

As one of the premiere pressure cookers of the sporting world, the media in Toronto are experts at bouncing between athletes to question and criticize.  Phil Kessel’s the first star of the week and leading the league in most offensive categories?  Sure, they’ll back off the Thrill, with some insidiously mumbled warnings that a slump is impending.  Phaneuf is playing like a captain, and an elite defender?  Fine, they’ll throw us a bone every now and then.  But hey, how about that Grabovski line?  Then the finger-wagging about depth and consistency begins as one of the league’s best lines from last year has not yet found their stride.  Although they were getting it done in the preseason, it’s really not surprising that Toronto’s number one line is slow out of the gates.

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Photo: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star

The Leafs began their three day getaway in Trenton yesterday. From what players and management have said, they’re buying into this trip as their chance to embark on some crucial group bonding. With a mix of kids, newcomers and a renovated coaching staff, there are a number of things that have changed since Toronto’s remarkable second half run last season. Brian Burke and his colleagues are well aware of the determination, effort and subsequent success that arose as a part of this young squad’s camaraderie and budding identity as a hockey club.

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    The mustache is back.

    As the preseason is winding down, the Leafs and Red Wings played a fast paced game with noticeably more skill and poise than those of recent weeks.  With that in mind, it was a bit surprising that three of the Leafs four goals were scored by Toronto’s Mikes: Brown and Komisarek.  Jonas Gustavsson was shaky at times, but used his monstrous frame with Allaire-esque purpose at the right moments, finishing with a save percentage slightly under .900.  More importantly, he clearly bested Jimmy Howard in the matchup of goaltenders, as the Leafs overcame an ugly second period to win it in overtime.

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    According to Bob McKenzie, Nazem Kadri’s MRI results are in and the young Toronto forward will be missing up to a month.  It should be made official tomorrow by the Leafs, but McKenzie’s as good a source as any.  Kadri suffered the injury to his knee in last night’s preseason game against the Senators.  It comes at a time when it looked like he had the inside track on the third line LW spot with Toronto.  Now, that spot is virtually assured to go to Matt Frattin.

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    Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    Who will suit up as a defender for the Toronto Maple Leafs come October 6?  The answer is truly up in the air at this point, and will probably remain as such until the conclusion of the preseason.  The uncertainty was furthered after Monday’s practice, when Ron Wilson came out and said that Keith Aulie is most definitely one of the defensemen fighting for a roster spot.  While this seems fairly logical, considering Aulie’s sophomore status and the club’s ability to easily send him down to the Marlies without passing him through waivers, many of us armchair GMs have had the towering blueliner firmly penciled in as Dion Phaneuf’s partner.  More fuel was added to this fire as Carl Gunnarsson was our captain’s sidekick at practice yesterday.

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    Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star

    The summer-long cork on Leafs hockey has been popped open, and the conclusion of the first preseason game (a 4-2 Leafs win over the Senators) has unleashed the expected outpouring of reactions, excitement, and media looking for a controversial storyline.  There is the unsurprising debate on line arrangements and battles for the few roster spots, but Toronto’s newspapers are not known to leave any contentious point unexplored.  Early into this iteration of the Maple Leafs season, one such point is the future of Jonas Gustavsson.

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    Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

    I came across an interesting Leafs article from a few days ago.  This article was in the sports section of a popular mainstream newspaper, best known for areas other than hockey but with well-known and established reporters that should know their way around a rink.  Now, if the writer of this article was Toronto-based you would be virtually guaranteed that it would feature one (or more) of the following: biting sarcasm, mockery, painfully awful attempts at humour (at the expense of the Leafs of course) or sheer factual inaccuracy.  Blissfully, this article was written by George Popalis of the Sports Network, whose articles are featured outside of the demented fishbowl that is Toronto (and Canada at large) and thus requiring genuine attempts at realistically assessing this franchise.

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    Preorder it now. Regret nothing.

    You know that dreadful time of the year known jointly as summer and hockey’s offseason is nearing it’s end when you’re able to preorder the latest edition of the Maple Leafs Annual.  Many fine writers have put forth an inordinate amount of quality hockey material in the 2011-2012 MLA, be sure to read more about the details from the architect of the masterpiece himself, Alec Brownscombe.

    In other news, Brian Burke loathes the shootout and so do I.  In a classic Burke stance (what does he not have a strong opinion on?), the man spits vitriol concerning the circus act that currently follows overtime in the regular season, but insists that he’ll continue to vote for it.  Why? “The fans” that love it, of course.  He also has a valid point in that other options (such as an extended 3-on-3 OT) would add more wear and tear to the players and would likely result in the odd injury.  Whatever, here’s one fan who would be more excited if the shootout was left for filthy trick shots during all star games, allowing teams to fight for those extra points as a collective entity.

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    Photo Credit: AP/Jack Dempsey

    The Leafs continue to plug the holes on their roster with today’s signing of bottom-six center Philippe Dupuis, formerly of the Colorado Avalanche.  Dupuis secured himself a two-way deal from Toronto, hoping to build on 2010-2011, his first full NHL season in which he accumulated 17 points in 74 games.  More importantly, he displayed energy and hustle on most nights, above and beyond that of his at-times despondent teammates.  He has a penchant for hitting with some penalty killing aptitude and should compete for the fourth line center spot with the Leafs this fall.

    32 games (SEL): 2.18 GAA, 0.927 SV%

    Exciting game sevens be damned, Brian Burke has shown an active hand in the undrafted free agent market once again, inking Swedish tender Mark Owuya to a two-year contract. The 21 year-old has been moving steadily through the Djurgarden system, beginning with their U18 team in 2005-2006. Owuya quickly moved onto the U20 incarnation of the Djurgarden franchise and even made his first appearance in the Swedish Elite League early in 2008. Yet the 6′ 2”, 198 lbs netminder bounced around various teams on a loan basis before entering this campaign’s preseason competing with Stefan Ridderwall for the number one slot.

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    14th place in the Eastern Conference? Thoroughly victimized over the last few seasons by the Toronto Maple Leafs? Yes, these Ottawa Senators appear to be ripe for the picking for a surging Leafs squad.   A Leafs squad that must also anticipate the final three games of the season, must-wins against opponents stronger than a suddenly-rebuilding Senators team. This also appears to be a situation that could evoke the sort of mental relaxation and carelessness in the Leafs that would see Ottawa happily steal away two points at Scotiabank Place.

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    AP / Jim Mone

    “Do or die”, a phrase that can be used for pretty much all of the games remaining on the Maple Leafs schedule as they attempt to maneuver themselves into that final playoff spot.  Yet this blog’s tagline uses this redundant sports idiom for more than it’s alliterative appeal, as tonight’s visit to Colorado will reflect the ability of our young Toronto team to close out those “winnable” games.  Yes, the Avalanche are an up-and-coming team laden with skilled youngsters.  If I were a member of the finger-wagging MSM, I would make it clear that they are a team rebuilding the “right way”, and that the Leafs own efforts are misguided and inferior.  But at this point in the season, only one thing matters: this is a team with just three wins in their last 23.  They are abysmal right now, with inadequate goaltending and the motivational issues that inevitably arise in bottomfeeding NHL clubs.  Toronto trotted out what some would call the quintessential road game against Minnesota on Tuesday night.  The mark of good teams in this league is the ability to execute such performances consistently when it matters.  As such, regardless of this team’s playoff destiny, tonight (9 PM, Sportsnet) will be a test worth watching.

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    You know Toronto is close to their playoff goals when the mainstream media begins to reluctantly acknowledge it’s (slightly) more than just a pipedream of starved Leafs fans.  Their push will be challenged tonight by the streaking Blackhawks, the epitome of a talented young squad, a team whose recent success Toronto is looking to emulate.  Both teams will come into this contest hungry for points as the regular season winds down and the playoff picture becomes progressively more crowded.  With a Buffalo win over Philadelphia earlier today, the Leafs will need these points to keep pace and close ground on the Rangers and Hurricanes.  While Chicago is fresh off a victory over said Hurricanes, there will be no letup in a team that sits fourth in the Western Conference, considering they are but four points up on the eleventh-placed Minnesota Wild.  If the Leafs can buck the usual listlessness they display on Saturday nights (4-9-4 on HNIC this season), this will be a good one, as neither team is ready to quit.

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    Tonight’s matchup between the Leafs and the New York Islanders will be viewed by outsiders as a tilt between two of the bottom-feeders of the Eastern Conference, devoid of much interest or playoff relevance.  Yet for the fans of both these teams, this game and those of the recent past have been of definite significance for the futures of these franchises.  The Islanders have been on an offensive surge, surprising opponents with their speed and tenacity in an attempt to somewhat salvage an otherwise dismal season.  This has given the New York faithful reason to eb confident in the offense of their young core going forward, lead by the likes of John Tavares and Michael Grabner.  While the defense and goaltending are still a work in progress, hope and potential lies in the likes of Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and recently acquired Al Montoya.  Montoya, who has yet to lose in his career with the Islanders, will be in net against a Toronto team that is heading in a similar direction (up!) from both the long and short-term perspective.

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    REUTERS/Doug Benz

    The Leafs are hoping they won’t need heroics from Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel to pull out a win tonight.  Unfortunately, knowing how it goes in Buffalo these days, they probably will.  The Sabres rested Ryan Miller last night, politely skipping over Patrick Lalime to call up Jhonas Enroth, who then backed them to a shootout win over Montreal.  Buffalo will return home tonight in hopes of propelling themselves into a tie with Carolina for the final playoff spot (provided the Hurricanes lose to the Devils).  From a Toronto perspective, the players have to know that taking these two points from the Sabres will be monumental in preserving their playoff aspirations.  With the raucous atmosphere you get from a Leafs-Sabres tilt at the HSBC Arena and the fast paced action that normally develops, this promises be a good one (7 PM, TSN).