Leafs continue to play up to the West’s elite

Jonathan Bernier made 39 saves and Michael Grabner had a goal and assist as the Leafs beat the Blues 4-1.

TORONTO — Of all the unexpected outcomes to pop up during this Toronto Maple Leafs season, a dominant run through the Western Conference has to be the most unforeseen.

Yet here they are sporting a 10-5-1 record against those opponents following Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.

While that doesn’t amount to a big enough sample of games to draw any grand conclusions, it has come with a confidence boost. And the Leafs have every right to feel good about themselves as they head west for a three-game swing through California next week.

They remain a team that largely flies under the radar – St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock believes that Mike Babcock has done a masterful job of keeping external expectations low – and have probably caught some Western opponents off-guard this season.

However, the Blues weren’t one of them, and they still got stung with their second 4-1 loss to Toronto in the last 28 days.

It was a tighter game than the final suggested. The Leafs made good on a third-period power play when Peter Holland beat Jake Allen with a screened shot before Nazem Kadri provided breathing room with a breakaway goal.

They also needed Jonathan Bernier to stand tall with 39 saves, but it wasn’t like they were hanging on for dear life all night long.

No, playing against a St. Louis team that has absolutely manhandled them the past two seasons, the Leafs largely held their own. When you couple that with the two victories they registered against Dallas earlier in the year, and the 5-0 win over Los Angeles two weeks ago, you start to understand why the level of belief is growing in Toronto.

“I think we just come ready to play (against Western Conference teams) because if we don’t we’ll get embarrassed,” said Kadri.

“It’s almost like we just bear down more or something because we know we have to,” added Holland. “It should be our responsibility to make sure that no matter who we’re playing we play the same way. That’s what good teams do.”

It could be an interesting second half of the season if they do.

The Leafs have rebounded nicely since posting just one victory in October, but still have plenty of work to do to get themselves in a playoff race.

They remain seven points back of the East’s final wild-card position and would need to leapfrog six teams to grab it.

It’s not likely. But it’s not impossible, either.

The overriding focus of this season for the organization is establishing structure and they’ve seen some big gains in that regard.

“We’re starting to become a tough team to play against,” said Kadri. “We’re starting to understand how to play and what we need to do to be successful.”

They are also getting the job done by committee – with leading scorer James van Riemsdyk extending his point streak to six games on Saturday and Leo Komarov continuing his career year with two more assists and Holland generating a game-high seven shots while scoring the game-winner.

Prior to the season, Babcock mused that he had projected the number of goals he expected each player to score and noted that it didn’t add up to a high enough total.

However, scoring hasn’t yet proven to be the issue many expected it to be. The loosey-goosey defensive play of seasons past is nowhere near as pronounced as it once was either.

The Leafs are now a tough two points on the schedule for any opponent and have gone 7-3-0 through the Central Division – widely regarded as the best in hockey – to prove it.

“They just make it hard on you and that’s what good teams do,” said Hitchcock. “What makes Mike a really good coach (is) he doesn’t give you anything for free. He demands that his players don’t give up anything for free and at the end of the day it comes down to how big a price you want to pay.

“He makes you pay a big price to win and it’s going to be like this all year.”

The signs of progress are there, especially when the Leafs play games you typically wouldn’t expect them to win.

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