TORONTO – It was one thing for Claude Julien to label the Toronto Maple Leafs a “legit contender” a few hours before they faced his Boston Bruins earlier in the week.
This was quite another.
“I think they’re a playoff team,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told sportsnet.ca on Saturday night.
“They’ve got a lot of speed, they forecheck hard and I think on defence they’re pretty solid,” Crosby added after Pittsburgh’s 5-4 shootout victory at an amped-up Air Canada Centre. “I see them being a playoff team. They’re playing well and getting wins for a reason.”
Toronto earned more than just a valuable point by erasing a pair of two-goal deficits against the powerhouse Penguins. They also inched a little bit closer to regaining some respectability -- a mandate Randy Carlyle has mentioned on more than one occasion this season.
Of course, the coach wasn't in any mood for celebrating after watching his team battle back and fall short.
"We scored four goals and when you score four goals we think you should win the game," said Carlyle. "We didn't do enough on the defensive side of the puck to give ourselves the best chance."
However, the Leafs should walk away from a couple tough games this week with a little more self-belief.
The 4-2 loss in Boston on Thursday came on the back end of a back-to-back and was one of the "strongest games for our group" this season, according to Carlyle. Two nights later against the Penguins, Toronto overcame a sluggish first period and salvaged a point thanks to two power-play goals and a late equalizer from Phil Kessel.
It made for an awfully entertaining evening of hockey -- easily the best in this building all season.
Fans of the Leafs have seemed a bit hesitant to fully embrace this team, no doubt a combination of a tepid 6-5-1 record on home ice and the long run of futility by the organization. But there were signs of life during the third-period comeback on Saturday and that was something the players were happy to see and hear.
There was also a hint of satisfaction drawn from the fact the team managed to keep its head in the game and offer some serious resistance against a quality opponent, especially after Pascal Dupuis scored to make it 4-2 for the Penguins with less than seven minutes to play in the second period.
In the past, that likely would have been the moment when the wheels fell off for Toronto.
"That's part of the growing process," said Leafs defenceman Cody Franson. "Last year, we made a lot of mistakes in areas in games such as tonight. We'd put our tails between our legs and just accept it. Now we're becoming more of a pushback team, we're stronger mentally.
"You learn from your mistakes and that's what we're trying to do."
As the pressure mounts and the games get tougher down the stretch, this Leafs team is going to have to prove it has left the ghost of last season behind. The players will certainly be reminded repeatedly about the gruesome finish that saw Toronto tumble down the standings in February and March.
However, to their credit, they've put themselves in position to erase that memory.
On Sunday morning, the Leafs found themselves closer to the Eastern Conference-leading Montreal Canadiens in the standings than they were to the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets. However, they had also played more games (26) than everyone else in the conference except Philadelphia.
With plenty of hockey still to be played before the regular season wraps up on April 27, the Toronto players were encouraged by their ability to push Pittsburgh to a shootout.
"These guys are a top team in the East for a reason and we're right there with them for the same reason," said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. "When we play our game we feel it gives us a chance to be in every game and gives us a chance to win every game."
Slowly, people around the league are starting to notice.
A handful of industry movers-and-shakers could be heard talking about the improved Leafs in the bowels of the ACC after Saturday's game and the Penguins had plenty of praise for their opponents as well.
They learned an early lesson about Toronto's potential after the Leafs walked into the season-opening game at Consol Energy Center in January and left with a 5-2 victory.
"I'm not surprised to see them be a tough team to play against and a good team," said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma.
The Penguins and Leafs are set to face one another again on Thursday night. And if Crosby's prediction proves correct, they may just be seeing one another in the first round of the post-season as well.