TORONTO – Despite finishing the 2010-11 season strong, making a valiant run for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs came up eight points short after a roller coaster year.
The Leafs’ fans began the season on cloud nine as Toronto opened with a 4-0 run, but that cloud quickly turned dark as they proceeded to lose the following three-straight games.
Despite the Leafs’ first half of the season being less than encouraging, the team rallied together behind rookie goaltender James Reimer to make the playoffs push everyone seemed so excited about.
Leading up to the All-Star break, the Leafs held a record that was under .500, giving the impression that a playoff berth was near impossible, but thanks to Reimer and Toronto’s sudden boost in energy, they managed to post a record of 18-7-6 and make a run that no one saw coming.
This season’s disappointing climax, falling short of the playoffs and ending up in the 10th spot in the East, was enough to crush the hopes of Leafs’ fans throughout Toronto. Meanwhile the team was optimistic and saw the light at the end of the tunnel for next season.
Toronto’s inability to reach the playoffs marks the franchise-record sixth straight season without making the trip to post-season.
Although Toronto fans have been brought along on this roller coaster ride during the past six seasons, it seems they may finally have something to look forward to after their strong second-half run.
Reimer was the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs during their 18-7-6 run that kept the team’s chances alive until the final days of the regular season. Few, if any, could have expected this when they trailed eighth place in the Eastern Conference by 12 points coming out of the break.
Though the season did bring upsets and heartbreaks, there were also shining moments that gave hope to the team and the city of Toronto.
After a slow first half of the season for star forward, Phil Kessel, it seemed all it took for the young winger to step up his game was to be picked last in this year’s inaugural All-Star draft, and get called out by coach Ron Wilson and make comments to the media that confused everyone about his passion to play in Toronto.
A fire seemed to ignite inside Kessel, who scored several important goals during the playoff run, as he finished the season with 32 goals and 32 assists.
It seemed the entire team was motivated by the performance and calm demeanor of Reimer as many other players rallied around the young goaltender, who was called up from the Toronto Marlies in mid-season.
One unlikely hero for the Leafs was winger Clarke MacArthur, who led the team in points mostly for the entire season, despite having one of the lowest salary hits on the team. MacArthur finished the season only two-points back from team top-scorer Kessel with 21 goals and 41 assists.
Two players who stayed consistent throughout the regular season were MacArthur’s line-mates, centre Mikhail Grabovski who scored 29 goals and added 29 assists, and fellow winger Nikolai Kulemin who managed 30 goals with 27 assists.
The line of Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin provided the majority of the team’s offence with a combined total of 177 points.
As for the often-ridiculed defence, even they began to step up their game late in the season, contributing greatly to the team’s unlikely playoff run.
Led by captain Dion Phaneuf, the defence felt more comfortable and at ease playing in front of Reimer with his calming effect on most of the blue liners.
Despite scoring only one goal in the opening half of the season as well as being plagued with injury after suffering a severe laceration to his leg early in the season that forced him to sit out of several games, Phaneuf came back and made his presence felt post All-Star break.
During the team’s second-half run, Phaneuf began hitting, scoring goals, and generally becoming more and more of the type of player coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke wanted to see out of him.
Phaneuf ended the season with eight goals and 22 assists. He attributed much of his success, both full-strength and with the man advantage, to Marlies call-up Keith Aulie.
Aulie provided depth on the blue line and a wingspan that was unparalleled and useful in tying up opponents against the end boards. Aulie is a promising addition to the team and looks to be improving, maturing, and adapting well to the NHL style of play.
This year, the Leafs proved to themselves and the fans that they should never be counted out, and they want to give their fans the distinct message that they plan to come out next season, and play the way they did following the All-Star break.