Toronto Maple Leafs on pace for record best regular season

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 17: Andreas Johnsson
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 17: Andreas Johnsson /

Saturday night’s win over the Montreal Canadiens was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 12th straight victory at home and they are now on pace for their best regular season finish.

It is hard to think that the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a game against the Montreal Canadiens at home was back on Jan. 18 2014. Their 4-0 win over their bitter rival now extends their franchise-record winning streak at home to 12.

While losing key players like; Auston Matthews, Frederik Andersen, Nikita Zaitsev and most recently Leo Komarov to injuries would be tough obstacles, it has been business as usual for Toronto.

Granted, the Canadiens did not present a tough challenge for the Leafs, in part due to injuries to key players and some spotty defensive play.

The story of the night, however, had to be Andreas Johnsson scoring his first career goal in just his second career game. This was significant because, with Komarov out, Johnsson got bumped up to play with William Nylander and Zach Hyman.

On the ice on that play was Johnsson, Nylander, Hyman, Travis Dermott and Connor Carrick. All of those players were with the Toronto Marlies during the 2015-16 season, which was their best season in the AHL (technically Johnsson only played two postseason games). That is no coincidence.

This was the same season that the Leafs finished dead last in the NHL, won the draft lottery and since then, have never looked back. Now they are on pace for a franchise-best season in just the third season with Mike Babcock as head coach.

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To think that this team could pass the previous mark set by the 2003-04 Leafs is quite an accomplishment.

That team on paper was a great team with players like; Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Owen Nolan, Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle and Alexander Mogilny, with Ed Belfour in net.

While it was usually the style of previous management groups to rely on a strong veteran core, the organization has finally embraced the youth movement which was led to the quick turnaround.

The Marlies have played a crucial role in developing those players to fill specific roles, rather than be a team that was only concerned about competing for an AHL championship (that was seen as a bonus).

It was only a matter of time before Dermott was going to make the team, given how he stepped up last season. Kasperi Kapanen has been able to distinguish himself with his speed, which was on display against the Habs.

Now it’s Johnsson’s turn to prove that taking a chance with a seventh-round pick was well worth the investment. He and Frederik Gauthier are the only players from the 2013 draft who are still in the Leafs’ organization.

So what did Babcock make of the 23-year-old’s second career game, after sitting out against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday?

A lot of chatter has been centred around what the team will look like if Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Komarov were to walk in the offseason. If Saturday’s game is any indication, the team might be willing to bet on their younger players to fill the void.

This is why a player like Johnsson is being given an audition now, like Kapanen did last season. The team might need the Swede to be ready for a permanent role next season and while two games is a small sample size, he has not looked out of place.

Now Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning could prove to be a critical one, as there is a good chance that both Matthews and Andersen could be back. Also, with the Boston Bruins only two points behind first place, there is now a possibility of the Lightning being the first round opponent for the Leafs.

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What did you make of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ performance against the Canadiens? Will they set a new franchise best in regular season wins and points? Let us know in the comments below.