Leafs Nation ecstatic after quick start

Kris Versteeg (8471346)

It seems that in “Leafs Nation,” analysis of the hockey team is emphatically whether fans are for or against the blue and white.

After winning its opening three games of the season for the first time since 1999, including Saturday’s 5-1 rout of provincial-rival Ottawa, the city has been abuzz.

That excitement only increased following the Leafs’ 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, improving Toronto’s record to a perfect 3-0.

As quick as fans were to get excited about a franchise, which has not given anyone reason to cheer since the lockout, many outsiders were mocking those Leaf supporters for already planning the parade route.

The argument is seen and heard on Internet chat forums and talk radio, but the problem with both sides is that one is focused on a very small sample of the present, and the other on the past.

It is ridiculous to suggest that three wins to start the season is enough to believe that Toronto has made the necessary improvements to guarantee an appearance in the post-season.

However, many have argued that the Leafs are destined to miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, and are only too happy to suggest hockey watchers ignore the Leafs and their silly fan base.

While it has been only three games, there is enough there to have cautious optimism.

The opening of this campaign has been completely different from the season prior, when the Maple Leafs didn’t earn their first victory until Oct. 26.

A season ago, the Leafs began the season with a 0-7-1 record, and were essentially out of playoff contention by November.

After another off-season of roster changes, including the acquisitions of Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur, most pundits insist that for the Leafs to have any chance of meaningful hockey in April, Toronto would need to be better right from opening night.

And the Leafs, to their credit, have done just that.

It isn’t just the wins, but the improvements the team has made in the necessary areas.

The biggest upgrade might be between the pipes, where former Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere has given the squad much needed confidence, allowing three goals in his two appearances.

Toronto’s penalty killing, an aspect of the game the team has struggled in during Ron Wilson’s tenure , did not allow a power-play goal in victories over Montreal and Ottawa.

The reason for the improvement lies not in the defencemen, but the attention to detail among the defensive forwards.

Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis were not on anybody’s radar when training camp opened, but grabbed the checking centre spots with strong pre-seasons and have formed a quick penalty-killing group along with the likes of Fredrik Sjostrom and Armstrong.

At this point, the Leafs’ forwards resemble GM Brian Burke’s blueprint of a top-six group of skill and offence, and a bottom six of grit and defence.

While fans must keep expectations realistic (although in Toronto, there will always be some who will believe the cup drought is about to end), the fast start by the Leafs does suggest there is reason for hope.