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Coach Carlyle is getting Leafs to buy in

2/11/2013

TORONTO -- This should have just been an exciting night in these burgeoning times for the Maple Leafs, Randy Carlyle’s young Toronto team showing signs of progress not seen in these parts for a long while.

With youngsters such as Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri again leading the way Monday night in a convincing 5-2 win over the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, the Leafs ran their win streak to four games and further buoyed a fan base craving any tangible sign of progress.

Need I remind anyone there hasn’t been a playoff game played here since April 2004?

Oh, there’s progress happening here, folks. Whether they make the playoffs or not this season, Carlyle’s impact is being felt, the Leafs displaying the kind of work ethic and system structure that leads to success in this league.

It was on display here again early in the second period Monday night, the Leafs’ effective forecheck creating three goals in the opening 6:15 minutes to break open a 1-1 tie and essentially decide the game.

A perfect night, however, it wasn’t for the fast-improving Leafs (8-5-0). Four minutes into the second period, James Reimer went down to the ice in obvious pain, leaving the ice with assistance with what the team called a lower-body injury.

Funny how a month ago before the season started nary a Leafs fan would have batted an eye at this news. After all, Reimer struggled so badly last season, the Leafs and Canucks held on-again, off-again flirtation sessions regarding Roberto Luongo and the Leafs didn’t hide their desire to upgrade in goal if the right trade could be had.

Reimer didn’t even get the opening night nod. That went to Ben Scrivens.

But Reimer eventually reclaimed the net and boy did he ever make it his again, to the tune of the seventh-best save percentage in the NHL at .929.

Suddenly, the James Reimer who came on strong in 2010-11 was back. And the Leafs were winning games.

Then came Monday night’s injury and we will see what impact, if any, it will have on Toronto’s season.

"We don’t think it’s that serious at this point," Carlyle said after the victory. "He shouldn’t miss any extended period of time."

Well, we’ll see. More tests will be conducted on Reimer on Tuesday.

Scrivens, it should be noted, delivered 36 minutes of solid relief Monday night, allowing one goal on 33 shots, and now he gets his shot for the foreseeable future.

The injury comes at a time when the Leafs are playing their best hockey under Carlyle.

The young players on this team are beginning to realize if they stick to the game plan set out by Carlyle and his staff, they have a shot. They are believers.

"That’s where it starts, before we worry about anybody else, it starts in the room," Kadri said after a two-assist night. "We had one plan, one vision at the beginning of the season and we’ve tried to stick to that.

"Obviously, some nights aren’t going to be our best, but I think for the most part we’ve come together as a team and really found ways to win."

What you’re seeing of late is a Leafs team that’s reacting instinctively to what Carlyle has drilled into them; it’s becoming second nature. They are quick on loose pucks, make smarter decisions with and without it, and force the opposition into mistakes. They finish their checks and drop the gloves to protect teammates.

In short, the compete level on this team is higher than it’s been in ages.

"What we’ve tried to talk about -- and this is since last April -- that we had to become more competitive in all three zones," said Carlyle. "That’s been a mandate that we’ve put in front of our players. If players don’t want to be competitive, then their chances of playing for our hockey club diminish."

(Let’s give some credit too, to AHL head coach Dallas Eakins, who has groomed several of the Leafs now playing sizeable parts on the NHL squad. If I’m an NHL GM looking for the next coaching star, look no further than the Marlies head coach.)

Carlyle has doled out ice time based on merit. Nobody’s pedigree matters. And what it’s doing is shattering the culture of entitlement that’s plagued this losing team for several years.

"This is a hockey club that is trying to find its way and earn its stripes," said Carlyle. "We’re trying to earn our respect back because we felt that that was part of our mandate coming off of last year and through the summer months that we talked about -- that we weren’t going to be able to continue along the path that this group had gone before and that we were going to have to change some things. You can credit the players with that.

"The coaching staff can try to put something in place, but it’s the people that are out there on the ice performing night in, night out that have to grasp it and live it."

Former Leafs GM Brian Burke was in the building on this night, sitting with visiting scouts in the press box. Let’s not forget his little role in all this. I’m sure he was smiling inside when James van Riemsdyk skated around Luke Schenn and beat Brian Boucher to make it 5-1 Leafs early in the third period. Burke, of course, traded Schenn to Philly for JVR last June -- his last trade as Leafs GM some seven months before getting fired. Make it eight goals on the season now for JVR -- three more than any Flyers player.

We’re not here to revisit the merit in Burke’s firing as Leafs GM last month, but let’s also not pretend the veteran hockey man also shouldn't get an ounce of credit for what’s happening here of late.

For starters, he hired Carlyle last March. That might have been his best move of all.