TORONTO – Who knows?
Any talk of playoffs in Toronto, after just 17 games and 37 days of the regular season, is bound to elicit a few snickers from afar.
And let’s be clear: That cynicism is well-earned.
Here on the ground we have an atmosphere where anything seems possible for the Maple Leafs.
They are generating more shots than any other team in the NHL and after Thursday’s 6-1 pounding of the Florida Panthers, they had scored more than all but three, on average.
With Frederik Andersen starting to show some form in goal, the league’s youngest team is suddenly starting to pile up victories.
“We’d like to be in a playoff race after 20 games,” said coach Mike Babcock. “I think if you’re in the race you have a chance, so that’s what you’re trying to do.”
This group has an opportunity to do something special.
You simply don’t see an explosion of talent emerge simultaneously like this too often. Against the Panthers it was rookie Connor Brown that took a turn in the spotlight with two goals and two assists – more than doubling his production on the season in one night.
Mitch Marner bumped his totals to 16 points in 17 games after scoring yet another gif-worthy goal, fending off defenceman Michael Matheson while faking out James Reimer with a triple deke.
“I think last second I kind of just realized I could maybe pull it back to the forehand,” said Marner. “So I was kind of thinking of different things going down on that. Luckily enough, I had enough time to pull it off.”
That helped turn some of the post-game focus into a discussion about what might be possible over these next few months. The Leafs have bumped their points percentage up to .559 with six wins in an eight-game stretch, which puts them just a hair shy of the pace it’ll likely take to claim a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Even though the hockey world at large may not be placing them in that kind of company just yet, it hasn’t deterred those in the dressing room.
“We’ve been thinking about this all year,” said Andersen. “We never thought short of the playoffs all year so I think we just keep going and doing the work in practice and keep getting better. We’re not satisfied not making the playoffs.”
“We approach every practice and every game like we’re one of those teams,” added Morgan Rielly. “We’re not downplaying it. … We believe that we can beat anybody and play with anybody. What comes with that attitude is that you’re going to be playing for a long time.”
If we’ve learned anything in recent seasons, it’s that there’s room for surprises. Not many believed in the 2014-15 Calgary Flames and they reached the second round of the playoffs. Last year it was the Panthers doing the unexpected with a franchise-record 103 points.
This version of the Leafs has some warts, particularly in the defensive end, but the massive talent injection into a 30th-place team that played with structure has produced some immediate dividends.
You need only look at an 11-game scoring drought for No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews as evidence of how well things are actually going.
It hasn’t halted the progress of the group in any way. Plus, were you to watch him closely against Florida it was again clear that it’s only a matter of time before the puck luck swings his way and the goals return.
In their absence, a whack of others are getting the job done. The Leafs have scored six goals in each of their last four wins.
Marner possesses the most pure offensive skill of the group and has seen his confidence grow by leaps and bounds.
The way he used his edges and stayed strong on the puck while Matheson chased him on the breakaway was yet one more reminder that any concerns about his size are unfounded.
The 19-year-old from Markham, Ont., is riding a wave of emotion and still can’t believe he’s bringing fans out of their seats at Air Canada Centre for the team he grew up cheering for.
“One hundred years of this team and luckily enough we’re a part of that now, and things going forward they’re going to be different,” said Marner.
They already are.
There is excitement in the air. Not only is the future bright, but so is the present. The games are going to get tighter and tougher, but perhaps this group’s mix of skill and naivety can carry it farther – faster – than even management had hoped.
“I mean you see Mitch’s goal tonight and you watch Auston play and you watch Willy (Nylander) and (Zach) Hyman and Brownie,” said Rielly. “I don’t think that we thought that these guys were going to be this impactful.”