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Maple Leafs Watch: Strong finish provides hope for 2010-11

Well, well, well – it appears there is some life in this Maple Leafs franchise after all.

A string of gritty victories against playoff-bound teams – and five wins in the six games they played before taking on Florida Tuesday night – must have Toronto fans feeling less nauseous than they’ve been for most of this NHL season.

With the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Carl Gunnarsson in tow, there will be more legitimate hope for next season than there’s been since the 2004-05 lockout year; considering where the Leafs are in their rebuilding stage, that’s as much as a long-laboring Leafs fan can ask for.

Unfortunately, Toronto’s horrendous start to the ’09-10 campaign (0-7-1 in its first eight games) makes its late push all for naught. If there is a bright side to that fact, it’s the lessons that can be taken from it.

Firstly, the Leafs’ up-and-down season underscores how consistent every NHL team has to be throughout the year, just to be in a position where it can fight for a playoff berth.

More importantly, it means no franchise can afford to open the regular season with a thud. In effect, teams can bury themselves in the standings right from the get-go, because the league’s points system makes it virtually impossible to gain significant ground in the standings.

Indeed, if you remove Toronto’s first eight games from the equation, they would’ve had a 26-27-12 record after Saturday’s win against Montreal. Granted, that’s nothing to boast about. But earning at least one standings point in 38 of 65 games is a ratio that – especially in the weaker Eastern Conference – would have put the Leafs in the thick of things for the remainder of the schedule.

Small consolation, I know. However, with the Leafs’ goaltending picture looking far more stable for next season – whether or not Jonas Gustavsson re-signs (and he is expected to) – it is reasonable to expect they’ll come out of the gate with more verve and nerve.

If they fail to, any and all subsequent efforts will be wasted.

This column also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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