Maple Leafs clinch North Division, but ‘real work starts now’

Mitch Marner scored the go-ahead goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs came back from 2-0 down to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2. With the win Toronto clinched first place in the North Division.

TORONTO — Wayne Simmonds settled in for his post-game press conference, took one peek at his Zoom reflection, and let slip a PG-13 exclamation.

“I need a haircut. Holy s—,” said Simmonds, speaking for a nation. “We’ve had a barber come in for most of the guys. Unfortunately, I need a different type of barber, so my barber hasn’t been able to come in. I’m hurting a little bit here.”

It is saying something that we’re charging toward mid-May and the greatest issue plaguing the Toronto Maple Leafs might be grooming (their perplexing power-play struggles notwithstanding).

The formerly Jekyll and Hyde hockey team — the one whose regular seasons were roller coasters of fretful inconsistency, yanking their panicky fan base along for every dip, dive and corkscrew — has been nowhere to be found in 2021.

In its stead is a club that ran through Canada wire-to-wire, claiming top seed in the North Division with a 3-2 comeback victory over the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night on home ice.

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are (dare we say it?) consistent.

With two games next week to tune up for Round 1 — likely against these same Canadiens — Toronto will enjoy, for a moment, its sparkling 35-13-6 record and .704 points percentage.

Not since the year 2000, back when Pat Quinn ran the bench and Mats Sundin was a point-per-game monster, have the Maple Leafs claimed a regular-season division title. This is only the second campaign since 1967 expansion that Toronto has accomplished the feat.

Simmonds, a proud son of Scarborough, says he doesn’t ever remember the Leafs winning their division.

We don’t blame him. Simmonds was only 11 in the spring of ’00. Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” was dominating FM radio and Erin Brockovich ruled the box office. So, this was way back in a time when Beyonce shared equal billing to Kelly and Michelle, and people left their houses to visit dark buildings called movie theatres.

Simmonds imagined what a full Scotiabank Arena would’ve felt like on this night.

“It woulda been pretty crazy,” he said. “The fan simulation noise isn’t quite the same as having actual bodies in the seats and real people cheering for you.

“It feels great. I want to give credit to every single guy on our team and in our organization. I think we’ve had some injuries along the way, and every single man stepped up every time we needed to.”

What’s most remarkable about the Leafs’ ticking off this item on their to-do list is how unremarkable it felt.

Sure, they scuffled through a lacklustre first period and fell behind 0-2 to their oldest rival. But once Toronto woke up and began mounting its rally — first with Pierre Engvall’s third strike in as many games, then with sniper William Nylander extending his latest point streak to seven games — one could sense the inevitable.

Mitch Marner’s 20th of the season (all at even strength) proved the dagger, and Jack Campbell bolted the doors to improve to 17-2-2, the best 21-game showing of any goalie in Leafs history.

Be it Auston Matthews’ 40-goal trot to the Rocket, Campbell’s timely emergence as a trusty No. 1, Marner’s magical production, or the dependable and plentiful sources of secondary scoring, the Maple Leafs have repeatedly reminded the rest of the country who holds the throne.

Despite their underwhelming special teams, the Leafs reasserted themselves as an elite 5-on-5 offensive threat in 2021 but, more importantly, transformed into a top-six defensive group at even strength.

They hold a plus-42 goal differential.

“We felt really good about our team offensively and where we were at there, but we knew we had to get better defensively this season,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I would just put it right there — the team’s commitment to defending the season. Now, obviously, we got good goaltending throughout the season as well, despite the fact we had adversity, used four goaltenders.

“But the fact that we were able to keep the puck out of our net, I would say, is the biggest reason why we were able to be as consistent as we were to be able to maintain our spot atop the division.”

Whenever a surging contender took a run at Toronto’s top spot in the standings — first Montreal, then Edmonton, then Winnipeg, then crickets — the Leafs created more separation, gathered more self-assurance.

“We have more confidence in ourselves as a group,” Alexander Kerfoot said. “The expectations are higher, our self-imposed expectations.

“We feel like we can do a lot of damage. Every team toward the end of the year feels like they have a chance, but I think that it feels a little bit more real this year.”

First in the North was a real target, laid out explicitly from Day One by general manager Kyle Dubas, through Keefe and all the way down.

This is about habit-building and pedal-slamming. About giving yourself the best chance to succeed and the weakest opening-round opponent available.

“You can’t play the playoffs in training camp. You can’t play the playoffs in Game 1 of the regular season. You’ve got to go through the process and go along the journey,” said Keefe, who addressed his players post-win with a short speech in the dressing room.

“Having to hang on to first place here and secure first place despite the fact that we’re competing with an Oilers team that didn’t seem to lose very much, we didn’t give it back and we found a way to get it done. That’s a real positive sign for our team, and I just acknowledged that.”

The Maple Leafs will relax Sunday with a well-earned day off. They’ll also get their vaccine shots, a sign that things are getting better (and barbershops might soon reopen). Just as Saturday’s division clinch is a promising boost yet far from the finish line.

“This was our goal at the beginning of the year, and it feels good to accomplish it,” Justin Holl said.

“But I think we all know that the real work starts now.”

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