Leafs in middle of most unexpected hot streak

Jonathan Bernier made 42 stops as the Maple Leafs exploded for four third period goals to beat the Ducks 6-2 in Toronto.

TORONTO — It’s never boring here, is it?

You see a third straight Toronto Maple Leafs season end with a stunning collapse and watch as the organization changes course during the “Summer of Analytics” and then 31 games later … you end up right back where you started.

That’s with the Maple Leafs defying gravity and thumbing their nose at PDO — not necessarily in that order — while piecing together an improbable 10-1-1 run that has left them within shouting distance of the Eastern Conference powers.

They had all of the smoke and mirrors and tricked-up deck of cards working in their favour on Tuesday. Completely outplayed through 40 minutes and badly outshot, naturally, the Leafs wound up romping to a 6-2 victory over the league-leading Anaheim Ducks.

“We’re in the entertainment business and winning hockey is entertaining hockey,” said Randy Carlyle.

However, it’s not as if the coach was burying his head in the sand.

He correctly noted that the team’s play has been slipping of late and found himself at a bit of a loss to explain this most unexpected of hot streaks. Remember where this all started, following the 9-2 loss to Nashville and the controversy that accompanied the Leafs decision not to salute their fans following a win over Tampa Bay two nights later.

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It was the nuttiest week this writer has experienced in 12 years of covering the team. Asked how he would have responded then if someone told him what was to come, Carlyle said: “(Are you) crazy? You know, are you real?”

“There were events that happened that changed our group; changed the way we play,” he added.

Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same.

The Leafs were tighter defensively at the beginning of this hot run, but have allowed an average of 37.8 shots against during the current six-game winning streak. This simply wouldn’t be possible without Jonathan Bernier, who was stellar against the Ducks, and counterpart James Reimer.

The NHL’s most potent offence has played a major role, too.

Toronto got a goal from each of its four lines on Tuesday before Phil Kessel added two late ones against Ilya Bryzgalov to salt this one away.

“We’re an opportunistic team,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “We don’t need many opportunities to score.”

Despite the clear warning signs, there is also plenty to like here.

The Leafs are an above average team on the power play and penalty kill, and Kadri is starting to look like an elite player. The line he centres with Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik spent most of the night going head-to-head with Ryan Getzlaf and more than held its own.

“They’ve kept the opposition’s best players 200 feet from our net,” said Carlyle.

What was of particular interest is that Peter Holland’s third line was matched primarily against the Ryan Kesler trio, essentially sheltering Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk from Anaheim’s top players.

That’s something you can pull off with a deep forward group and the last line change.

While acknowledging that they gave up too many shots, the Leafs pointed to a four-goal outburst in the third period as evidence that they’ve made strides since last season. They were ahead 2-1 after 40 minutes and didn’t retreat into a shell.

“I think we’re getting much better when we have the lead there,” said Bernier. “I think we keep playing hard. I think last year maybe we would stop playing.”

Mark it down as another notch in the win column, albeit one that didn’t include many (any?) of the process goals the team has recently started focusing on.

Good times are clearly here again, with the Air Canada Centre rocking like it seldom does and fans of the team starting to believe.

Looming not far off in the distance is a brutal stretch of 17 road games over the next seven weeks that will go a long way to determining whether this group has actually taken a step forward. Of that, no one truly knows.

“We’ll just keep riding the wave if we can,” said Carlyle.

Either way, it promises to be must-watch TV for those in the hockey world.

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