Johnston on Leafs: Playoffs just around the corner

The franchise that spent nearly a decade turning losing into a habit isn't just on the verge of a long-awaited return to the playoffs; it is charging right through the front door.

TORONTO – There it was, the long-awaited flicker of hope, finally ignited inside the Air Canada Centre at the most unlikely of times.

It was almost as if the Toronto Maple Leafs fanbase was awakening from a long hibernation when the “Reimer! Reimer!” chant began echoing through the building late in Monday’s game.

The urge to sleep was only natural after watching the home team sag badly against a New Jersey Devils squad that is headed for a lottery pick in the upcoming draft. In fact, the Leafs had managed just eight shots on goal through two and a half periods before a quick succession of saves from James Reimer injected some much-needed life into the blue and white.

“You saw the atmosphere,” defenceman Mark Fraser said after Toronto’s 2-0 victory over New Jersey. “We weren’t creating a whole lot of energy or excitement, (Reimer) was, and that sort of fuelled us.”

There were two pad saves on Adam Henrique, including one that saw Reimer flat on his chest and lunging to keep the puck out. There was a quick reaction on a bang-bang setup for Patrik Elias and an aggressive stop on David Clarkson during a 2-on-1.

In all, there were 31 saves for Reimer’s third shutout of the season — an encouraging sign with the playoffs just around the corner.

“Reims tonight was just huge,” said Fraser. “He’s hopefully proven to people what he’s capable of.”

Added coach Randy Carlyle: “We didn’t really have our work boots on. We got outcompeted early in the game, but our goaltender stole us a hockey game.”

That the Leafs defied the odds and managed to pull out a victory speaks to the unmistakable confidence that has built up during the current 9-1-4 stretch. Put another way: Outside of four shootouts, this team has lost just one game since March 14.

Whether you’re a believer in hockey gods or good karma or just sheer luck, it’s hard to ignore what is happening in Toronto.

The franchise that drove 18-wheelers off cliffs and watched Wade Dubielewicz dash its dreams and spent nearly a decade turning losing into a habit isn’t just on the verge of a long-awaited return to the playoffs; it is charging right through the front door.

In fact, the Leafs can formally lock up a spot in the post-season Tuesday by beating Washington and having Winnipeg drop at least one point to Tampa Bay.

At the very latest, the formality should be taken care of by the weekend – leaving the team about 10 days to focus on the first round.

“We’re feeling real good, really confident,” said forward Nazem Kadri. “That’s what a string of wins will do to your hockey team. It seems like we’ve got the type of mentality that we can beat anybody.

“We’re on a high right now.”

Monday’s game against the Devils had all the makings of a low point. Not only did the Leafs manage to tie their worst output for shots in a period in the opening 20 minutes (three), they followed it up by bettering the mark in the second period (two).

Had Reimer not been sharp this could have been pretty ugly.

However, the third-year NHLer has taken his play to a new level with an impressive .925 save percentage this season and only seems to have gotten better since GM Dave Nonis attempted to convince Miikka Kiprusoff to finish his career here prior to the trade deadline.

The biggest thing driving the 25-year-old from Morweena, Man., is the chance to experience playoff hockey for the first time since backstopped the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup in 2009.

“We’re expected to win at all costs no matter what happens,” said Reimer. “You’ve just got to find a way to win no matter what.”

It was telling that Carlyle chose to invoke some humour after watching his team direct just five shots on Martin Brodeur through 40 minutes. The Leafs coach said he dropped some inside jokes during the intermission in an attempt to get his players smiling.

The damn was finally broken thanks to a late power play that saw Phil Kessel dart off the side boards and score his sixth goal in four games — bringing his total to 16 on the season. Jay McClement then hit the empty net to seal it.

As you would imagine, there was a sense of relief as the Leafs packed up for the trip to D.C. It’s not very often that a NHL team wins with just 13 shots on net — although Toronto has now managed to do it twice this season.

However, there is also a deeper sense of satisfaction growing among a young team that believes it can make some noise the spring.

“I think we’ve thought that from the first 10 games of the season,” said Reimer. “We’re a resilient group in here and we find ways to win and we don’t get down. … We have a lot of faith in our abilities and in each other and in our goal.

“Obviously there’s no promises or guarantees because anything can happen, but we do have a healthy faith and confidence in what we can do.”

It’s been a long time since that could be said in this town.

There has been no group of NHL fans more beat down than those that cheer for the Leafs — it wasn’t so long ago that the chants were “Let’s Go Blue Jays!” or “Fire Wilson!” — but ever so slowly, ever so surely, the paying customers seem to be rounding into post-season form as well.

The countdown is on. The wait is nearly over. Playoff hockey is coming back to Toronto.

“The guys are very comfortable where we are,” said Fraser. “We know the season’s about to close out and we have a chance to really do something special here.”