TORONTO -- They were supposed to be a bubble team. If everything went right -- if the goaltending held up, if the youngsters took a giant step forward, if the team learned to play defence -- the Toronto Maple Leafs might just make the playoffs.
Halfway through the season, that is looking more and more like a possibility.
The Leafs, who defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-4 on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, are in sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings after 24 games. A win against the Boston Bruins on Thursday would put them in fourth.
How did a team that finished with the fifth-worst record in the NHL suddenly turn things around? Here are five keys to the first half.
OUT WITH THE OLD
It was somewhat fitting that 32-year-old John-Michael Liles and 31-year-old Mike Komisarek, who are the oldest players on the Leafs, watched yet another game from the press box on Wednesday.
Toronto started the season with the second-youngest roster in the NHL. While that is usually a recipe for inconsistency, the youngsters have been leading the way.
Nazem Kadri, 22, is the youngest player on the team, and he leads the Leafs with 24 points. James van Riemsdyk, 23, leads the team with 13 goals.
"You've got to find ways to get your young players up to speed in the NHL and see what you have," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "If they continue to grow as players, then your team continues to grow."
Phil Kessel, who scored his sixth goal of the season on Wednesday, might not be scoring as much as he is used to. But with a team-leading 14 assists, he is making sure just about everyone else on the team is filling the net.
Kessel, who had a three-point game, received assists as linemates van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak each scored. Unlike last year, it is not just the top line that has been providing offence.
Kadri, who is on a six-game point streak, scored his 10th goal on Wednesday. Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur each have six goals. Jay McClement has four. Even fourth-line forward Frazer McLaren, who leads the Leafs with six fighting majors, has scored twice.
The net result is that the Leafs entered the game ranked seventh, scoring 2.96 goals a game.
TWO NO. 1 GOALIES RATHER THAN TWO NO. 2s
"1A and 1B" is how Carlyle has described the Leafs goaltenders.
At the start of the season, most would have labelled James Reimer and Ben Scrivens "2A and 2B." But halfway through the year, the two inexperienced goalies have combined to give the Leafs the type of goaltending they have lacked in previous years.
Reimer and Scrivens have split the net this year. Each has made 12 starts and both entered Wednesday night's game tied for sixth in the league with identical .923 save percentages.
Reimer, who has started the last three games since returning from a knee injury, did not always look sharp in a 39-save performance against the Senators. But with the Leafs playing again on Thursday, expect Toronto's other starter to get the nod.
POTENT PENALTY KILL
The key to any not allowing any short-handed goals is to stay out of the penalty box. Aside from that, you need good goaltending and players who are willing to work hard enough to erase being down a man.
Toronto has been getting both. The Leafs are one of the least penalized teams in the NHL. And unlike the past five years, when their penalty kill ranked in the bottom three, the Leafs entered Wednesday night tied for 13th with a 82.7 per cent success rate.
The improved play of the goaltenders is a large part of that. So, too, is the addition of short-handed specialist McClement. But the big change, according to defenceman Mark Fraser, is "there's a general agreement on the commitment level."
STOPPING THE SNOWBALL
There was a time last season when the Leafs lost six games in a row. Another where they lost five. And another where they lost four.
This year, the longest losing streak that the Leafs have endured has been two games. And it has happened just twice.
On the flip side, the team is currently on its second three-game winning streak. Longer winning streaks and shorter losing streaks are why the Leafs have won 11 of their last 14 games since their last two-game losing streak.
The coach deserves credit for that. While previous coaches have preached accountability, Carlyle has actually had the guts to bench high-paid players if they are not getting the job done. The result is that mistakes and poor play quickly get remedied.
"I think the one thing that we're going to be consistent with is our work ethic and our demand for our players is not going to waver," Carlyle said.
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