The low point in what had been a season of unremitting dreariness took place on Jan. 28 at the NHL All-Star Game's inaugural draft. There sat Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs' lone selection, left unchosen until the last pick, like the kid in the schoolyard with a runny nose. His team stood 26th in the league, 14 points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. There seemed little hope for an Original Six franchise that has the league's longest drought without a title (43 years) and second longest without a playoff berth (six years). Across Ontario, calls went out for mass trades and firings.
Yet instead of turning over a new Leaf, Toronto has virtually upended the forest since the All-Star break, going on a 10-3-4 run. Through Sunday the surge had moved the Maple Leafs to within four points of the postseason and marked the first time they had earned points in 14 of 16 games since 2003. What's more, Kessel, never terribly comfortable in the spotlight, has handled his All-Star snub with quiet class, diligently upping his game. After going 14 matches without a goal from Jan. 13 to Feb. 12, he blasted eight goals in his next eight games and began paying uncommon attention to his own end. "Phil's playing a 200-foot game," says Toronto G.M. Brian Burke. "His defense has been outstanding."
Coach Ron Wilson recently began pairing Kessel with Joffrey Lupul, a big forward who draws attention from the sturdy winger. That is one plausible theory for Kessel's improvement. Other, less persuasive explanations include his decision to change from white tape to black on his stick, which he did after former NHL player Dennis Maruk e-mailed Burke to suggest the switch. A more likely reason—with which Kessel disagrees—is that the All-Star fiasco lit a fire under the 23-year-old. "If the selection process bothered him the way it bothered me," says Burke, "I wouldn't doubt that it got him going."
In goal, rookie James Reimer, 22, has solidified what had been a shaky position for the Leafs. Reimer made his NHL debut on Dec. 20 but has started Toronto's last eight games and has a sparkling .924 save percentage. "Nothing shakes him up," says defenseman Dion Phaneuf. "If he lets one in, he forgets it right away." Phaneuf, the Toronto captain, has also boosted the offense by joining the rush more often. After tapping in a goalmouth second-period rebound in a win over the Flyers last Thursday, Phaneuf joked, "I got lost."
Burke, now in his third season with the Leafs, has had a harder time turning Toronto around than he did when he won a Cup in his second season with the Ducks in 2007. He was criticized for paying too dearly for Kessel—he gave up three high draft picks in September 2009—but his club's recent hot streak has quieted many of the doubters.
With the NHL's third-youngest team, two late first-round picks in June's draft and healthy assets in the minors, Burke is probably going to try to trade up for a better pick after the season. With or without a trip to the playoffs this spring, that leaves ample reason for optimism.
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FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS (KESSEL)
TICKER-TAPE DELAY Forget the 43-year Cup drought; Kessel just wants to rid Toronto of its six-year playoff itch.