x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Toronto Maple Leafs have eyes firmly on prize

What began last spring as a celebration of Toronto Maple Leafs’ first play-off series in nine years ended with a devastating loss to eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins. This season they are aiming for a different ending.

Toronto Maple Leafs and their star forward Phil Kessel, second from right, are eager to put the disappointment of last season's play-off collapse behind them and fulfill their potential this season. Matt Slocum / AP Photo
Toronto Maple Leafs and their star forward Phil Kessel, second from right, are eager to put the disappointment of last season's play-off collapse behind them and fulfill their potential this season. Matt Slocum / AP Photo

The new season could not start soon enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs; the better to put post-season shock behind them.

What began last spring as a celebration of the Leafs’ first play-off series in nine years ended with a devastating loss to eventual Stanley Cup finalist Boston, as the Leafs coughed up a three-goal lead late in the third period of the deciding Game 7.

Hoping to spin it forward, Dave Nonis, the team’s general manager, told CBC Sports as training camp opened last month: “We proved to ourselves we can compete with that team. That’s what we’ve taken out of it.”

Apparently so.

The Leafs opened the new season this week with a pair of road wins over the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers, effectively severing connections with the recent past.

There was a lot of looking ahead, starting with the news on the eve of the opener that high-scoring forward Phil Kessel had signed an eight-year, US$64 million (Dh235m) contract.

The team then edged their long-standing, Original Six rival Montreal, 4-3, with newcomer Mason Raymond scoring the game-winning goal.

The next night against the Flyers, two more new Leafs – forward Dave Bolland and goalie Jonathan Bernier – provided another fresh look for this presumably improved team.

Bolland, who played last season for the champion Chicago Blackhawks, scored twice in a 3-1 victory. Former Los Angeles Kings backup Bernier stopped 31 shots.

It is not all about the newcomers, of course. The Leafs’ run to the post-season last April had substance, mostly on the offensive end. They were the sixth highest scoring team in the league, with Kessel (20 goals, 52 points), Nazem Kadri (18 goals) and James van Riemsdyk (18 goals) providing most of the fireworks.

Another sharpshooter, Joffrey Lupul, is back as well, after missing 25 of the shortened 48-game season with a broken arm.

Defensively, they were a mediocre team. But Bernier’s addition gives the Leafs a strong alternative to last year’s No 1 keeper, James Reimer. The competition in goal will be ongoing.

No team has more reason to look forward than the Leafs.

After their eight-year play-off drought ended, expectations of a second consecutive post-season are quite realistic.

Most forecasters have picked them among Eastern Conference contenders, behind the Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.

No one is settling, though. Former Chicago man Bolland was asked about Chicago’s opening-night Cup ceremony, but he seemed happy to look ahead.

“This is a new chapter for me,” Bolland said. “I want to, hopefully, do that here in Toronto.”

Why not? The Leafs know better than anyone that improbable things can happen.

sports@thenational.ae