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Maple Leafs 5 v. Red Wings 1: On The Road To Validation

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the Hall of Fame game 5-1 as they used their forecheck and a determined defense to stymie a Detroit Red Wings team that had seemingly turned a corner. The Chris Osgood that had posted a .976 sv% over his last three games was replaced by the one that had a sub-.900 sv% in the rest of his starts. There was a confusing moment in the first period when a Leaf wearing 1 and 8 flew down the wing, past a sprawling defender before rifling a wrist shot past Osgood to notch his first goal in Toronto. Congratulation to Wayne "Not Keith" Primeau on finally breaking his goose egg. Phil Kessel also managed it but in decidedly less glamourous circumstances as he tapped in a Jason Blake shot that was trickling into the net anyway.

Jeff Finger stretched the Leafs' lead to 3-0 when he rifled a shot past Osgood as he jumped into the rush to turn a Stempniak-Stajan 2-on-2 into an odd man rush. Daniel Cleary scored the least surprising goal of the season John Mitchell, who must be thanking his lucky stars that he is centering Phil Kessel, picked up his second on the powerplay on a play that looked like Kessel just banked it in off of his stick. Ponikarovsky finished off the scoring as he put a weak backhand through Osgood's legs.

The win was good, starting a winning streak is great, but the best part is that root of the Leafs' ills seems to have be solved.

The Leafs have points in seven straight games with three of them being wins. Not surprisingly, Jonas Gustavsson started six of those games. The Maple Leafs are now looking like the kind of team that made Brian Burke think that the Phil Kessel trade was an acceptable risk. Brian Burke haters were falling all over themselves to get their jabs in when the Leafs were winless. Things were not helped by the fact that Vesa Toskala continued where he had left off before his surgeries. Actually, he has been much much more than he has ever been.

Jonas Gustavsson's heart issues and his strained groin robbed Brian Burke of seeing one of his prized off-season acquisition (and possibly his most important) make the impact that he expected. Until this recent run. The Phil Kessel trade would never have been made without the Gustavsson signing because as Burke has noted, you build teams from the net out. That signing, along with the additions on the blueline,  gave him the confidence that the Leafs would not be giving up a top ten pick let alone a lottery pick or two in the deal.

Do you have that zen feeling when the opposition has the puck? You know, the complete opposite of what you felt when Toskala was in net? Yeah, so do the Leafs and it shows. Suddenly, Burke's talk about competing for the playoffs doesn't seem so insane. And it all starts in goal with the improved goaltending. Yes, chemistry was an issue early on but even the players and coaches and Damien Cox agree that the underlying issue was in net:

It's not rocket science after all; get good goaltending, and everything else flows from that.

I made a big point of the fact that having confidence in your goalie (as well as a goalie that can stop a beachball) helps to improve a number of areas. Take goal-scoring for example. The Leafs scored 15 goals in 7 games and a bit of the Washington game when Vesa Toskala or Joey MacDonald were in net but they potted 24 in 7 games and the rest of that Washington game with The Monster guarding the crease.

The penalty kill is another area that has improved. During the seven game point streak it's been killing penalties at a 85.7% clip including all of them over their last four games. You can read more quotations from other players in blurr's fanshot but this one from Jeff Finger sums the argument up best:

"He’s been great, bottom line. It gives us the confidence to play the game that you need to play to win in this League. You’re just confident in what you’ve got back there so you can make a play and not worry about turning the puck over. He’s been real solid."

At the end of the day, the poor penalty kill, the lack of offence, and the terrible defence are all symptoms of the problem that begins between the pipes. It appears that the Leafs have found the cure in Jonas Gustavsson but the real test will come the next time that they play Vesa Toskala in net. They need to maintain the mental toughness to play the game the way that they have been and maybe displaying that confidence will rub off on the Finn.