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Three Reasons for Optimism for the Maple Leafs

Suddenly, a few seeds of optimism have begun to bloom for the Toronto Maple Leafs after a poor start to the season. Let's take a look at three reasons why things are looking up.
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Just win, baby. 

It wasn't pretty. But when wins have been as hard to come by as they have for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, beggars can't be choosers. 

That's more or less the sentiment that Leafs players and staff held following the team's 5-4 victory over the Red Wings on Saturday night, pushing their win streak to a triumphant two games. 

Would the Leafs have liked to cut things so close with a Detroit team that was on the second half of a back-to-back on the road? Likely not! 

Would they have preferred to surrender two separate two-goal leads after seemingly putting the game away? Doubtful! 

And would they have enjoyed it if their supposed 1B netminder who happens to be signed for the next three years at nearly $4 million per had not allowed four goals on 31 shots to a Tyler Bertuzzi-less Red Wings lineup? Almost certainly! Yes! 

But a win is a win is a win. And the Leafs have now strung two of those bad boys together, easing the pain of a truly disastrous start to the season that threatened to tear the team apart. Their reward? the luxury of sleeping in their own beds for the next 11 days. 

Suddenly, a few seeds of optimism have begun to bloom. Let's take a look at the main three. 

John Tavares is Back

With Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews gobbling up such a large chunk of the headlines, it's easy to forget just how important John Tavares is to this team. 

"He does everything right and pushes everyone to get better," said Petr Mrazek of his captain on Saturday night. 

It's not a coincidence, then, that Tavares' best game of the season happened to coincide with the Leafs' best offensive performance, either. 

Tavares was a man possessed versus Detroit, rabidly hunting down pucks in the corners, winning board battles like his vintage self, and finding open space in front of the net the same way he did during his 47-goal debut season as a Leaf in 2018-19. And that play was rewarded, with Tavares racking up a goal, two assists, and an insane 78.61 xGF%. 

From your $11 million captain, you're expecting dominance. And on Saturday night, Tavares was dominant. 

What's more, is that Tavares seemed to influence season-best performances out of his linemates, too. Both Marner and Alexander Kerfoot had goals of their own, the latter's coming directly as a result of Tavares stripping two Red Wings behind their own net and serving the puck to him on a platter in the slot. 

Jumpstarting Kerfoot is important, but reigniting Marner's offensive production is vital. And if Tavares can continue to play like he did on Saturday, the Leafs' practice mannequin would be a shoo-in for a breakout -- let alone a player as skilled as Marner. 

Timothy Liljegren Has Arrived

Ok, it's early. So saying he's "arrived" might be a stretch. But Timothy Liljegren had what was undoubtedly his best game as an NHLer on Saturday night, logging over 17 minutes in ice time alongside his best bud Rasmus Sandin while playing a prominent role on the penalty kill, and finishing the night with an absurd 89.05 xGF% at even strength. 

Those are fantastic numbers, and yet don't even illustrate some of the more subtle positives of Liljegren's performance, such as the way he seemingly never missed a stretch pass all night and produced a few grade-A offensive looks for himself thanks to some shrewd decision-making from the point. 

What makes this sterling showing even more important, perhaps, is that it came in the absence of Justin Holl, who watched from the press box as a healthy scratch.

Now, Keefe has been uncharacteristically candid about Holl's struggles to this point in the year, stating that Holl has "not played near his level that we've come to expect". That's harsh. Pre-game, though, Keefe told reporters that the harshness of scratching Holl was intentional, a "shock to the system" meant to hopefully build him back up into the important player he's been to the team. 

If that reboot worked, and Holl draws back into the lineup a new man, the Leafs will then have their top two pairs firing on all cylinders with a third of Sandin-Liljegren that can theoretically dominate in sheltered minutes. Travis Dermott, then, would be the odd man out in this scenario, which is fitting given how much he struggled on Saturday night when given an extended shot to lock down a top-four role alongside Morgan Rielly. 

Liljegren once only gave the Leafs potential. What he gives them now, however, is tangible options. And the team would be wise to explore them. 

Morgan Rielly is Locked In

Normally, handing out a $7.5 million AAV to a defenceman approaching age 30 whose biggest flaw lies in his own end wouldn't be cause for celebration. But Morgan Rielly is different. 

Is Rielly's eight-year, $60 million extension a steal? No. What it is, however, is almost perfectly fair, and represents a rare example of a recent Leafs star leaving money on the table to stay in Toronto. 

Rielly is beloved among Leafs players. He's been there through the franchise's darkest days -- as a non-playing rookie for "It Was 4-1", the entire Peter Horachek year, the 2015-16 tank, etc. -- remained a consummate professional nonetheless, and has now been rewarded for his service. 

After watching beloved contributors like Zach Hyman, James vanRiemsdyk, and even Nick Foligno walk for nothing due to cap constraints in recent years, keeping the most beloved of all has got to spread some positive vibes around the Leafs room. 

And, like it or not, this team runs on vibes. 

Showing such a strong commitment to a player like Rielly is precisely the type of serotonin boost the Leafs need right now. 

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