Leafs finding surprise strength at centre

Toronto Maple Leafs David Clarkson, right, celebrates his goal with Trevor Smith.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t racked up many style points through the first quarter of the NHL season, but they’ve sure grabbed a good number of the more important ones in the standings.

Through seven weeks you can safely say this about Randy Carlyle’s team: They keep finding a way.

Even on a night where they’re playing with three centres that started the season in the American Hockey League. Even on a night where Phil Kessel was still feeling the effects of the flu and playing with a taped right wrist that suggested he was far from 100 per cent. Even on a night where they were outshot 37-24 by the visiting New York Islanders.

None of it got in the way of a 5-2 Toronto victory that saw Kessel get two goals, Jonathan Bernier make 35 saves and David Clarkson finally score for the first time since joining the Leafs.

“We’ve battled through a lot of injuries and we’re still up near the top of the conference,” said winger Joffrey Lupul, who had three assists. “That’s a positive. Is there things we could do better? For sure there is, but I’m sure every team in the league with the exception of maybe St. Louis or San Jose or one of these teams is saying the same thing.

“Everyone wants to do some things better. It’s early in the season and you’re kind of just finding that identity as a team and you want to eventually be a team that plays the same way every night and a team that improves throughout the year.”

Toronto is now 8-2-0 at Air Canada Centre and 13-7-1 overall – leaving it third in the Atlantic Division and slightly ahead of where it was through 21 games last season.

That fact alone isn’t a surprise; how they’ve done it is. From Clarkson’s 10-game suspension to a slew of random injuries, the Leafs have essentially been in triage mode since the puck dropped in Montreal on Oct. 1.

Carlyle also pointed out that the team basically carried 30 players until the end of training camp because of a busy pre-season schedule and didn’t get in a comfortable rhythm as a group before everything started for real.

“We didn’t get really have any chance to get a breather and then we started to get people that were suspended or hurt and that’s continued,” said Carlyle. “Hopefully all that bad (luck) is gone and we’re going to be able to get our group together and grow this team. As I stated before, we haven’t created our identity yet.”

The only thing the Leafs can truly hang their hat on so far is excellent goaltending. Whether it’s been Bernier or James Reimer between the pipes, Toronto is getting more saves than any team in the entire NHL.

On Tuesday night, Bernier got his pad on an in-close chance from Josh Bailey before kicking out a leg to deny Kyle Okposo on a second-period power play. That allowed the team to stay ahead and eventually build on a 1-0 lead that landed in its lap when Trevor Smith scored just 22 seconds in.

“Our goaltending’s been great this year,” said Kessel. “When your goalies are playing like that you’re going to win a lot of games.”

Kessel has done his usual part as well. He showed off his all-world wrist shot with both goals he put behind Kevin Poulin while reminding everyone that the Leafs don’t need very many chances to make opponents pay.

They are an extremely dangerous quick-strike team and few players in the entire league are better in transition than Kessel.

“If you give them opportunities they’re going to capitalize,” said Islanders captain John Tavares. “They have been improving over the years and obviously they’re not an easy team to play against.”

An eagle-eyed fan on Twitter pointed out that Kessel was playing with tape on his right wrist and he didn’t deny that it was related to an injury. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” he said.

It only stands to reason that he isn’t quite at full health. That’s kind of the way it’s been going around here.

You only needed to look at a lineup that had Smith, Peter Holland, Jay McClement and Jerred Smithson at centre – that group had combined for just 325 points in 1,278 NHL games – to see that the Leafs are making it up as they go along.

“We’ve been forced to do some things differently with personnel,” said Carlyle. “We are just trying to find a way to manufacture points. This isn’t a development league we’re in; it’s about winning.

“The more points we can put up on the board – it doesn’t matter who we have in the lineup – it just bodes well for us in the future.”

More than anything, that is a reason for optimism.

Rather than dig a hole while battling through adversity, this group appears to be building a foundation for something better. Nazem Kadri will be back from suspension on Thursday, Tyler Bozak could return by Saturday and the lineup should start looking stronger as a result.

“We haven’t been healthy this year yet and who is to say we ever really will be?” said Lupul. “We think we’re a playoff team, but how good we can be remains to be seen. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to improve on to take it to that next level.

“It’ll take a lot of work to do that. We’re certainly not there yet.”

If nothing else, they seem to be on the way.

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