TORONTO — Saturday night on Bay Street and the mega city is buzzing about the hottest commodity in the Toronto market.
For the first time in a long time, blue-and-white futures are on the rise.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are always the talk of the town, the difference this season is that there’s actually something to talk about.
“People are really excited, and they should be,” said right-winger Joffrey Lupul, the second-leading scorer on the second-best team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Outside the Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs tangled with the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, scalpers were in bold voice, aware that they are holding a product with upwardly mobile value in their hands.
Wearing a Leafs sweater as he waited to enter the building, Tim Priano couldn’t hide his excitement over the progress of his favourite team.
“It’s great to see them at the top of the standings,” said Priano, who came a long way to see the Leafs.
Priano and Jon Tietz, two among the 19,553 who jammed the rink for Saturday’s Hall of Fame game, drove from their homes in Pittsburgh to take in the spectacle.
“You want to be part of this atmosphere,” said Tietz, also garbed in a Leafs jersey. “I’m just finally excited that we have a team that’s on top of the standings.”
“It’s definitely worth the six-hour drive to see these guys play,” Priano added. “It’s just so easy to like all these young guys that are playing for this team.”
Into their fourth year under current general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson, the Leafs appear to have finally turned the corner, though Lupul feels the movement was shifted into gear during the second half of the 2010-11 campaign.
“I think a lot of it started for us last year,” Lupul said. “We had a little run at the end of the season. We didn’t end up getting in the playoffs, but we closed the gap on a lot of teams, and played some meaningful games down the stretch.”
Even though it didn’t end the way they wanted, Lupul believes last season’s run was a beginning to this season’s success story.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in here with no playoff experience, so I think that was invaluable to them,” Lupul said. “They say you can’t take momentum from one season into the next, but I think we took some good experience for sure.”
This season’s Leafs look nothing at all like recent editions of the club, other than the reality that they still wear the blue-and-white Toronto uniforms. This squad plays with a passion and a purpose, utilizing their team speed to pursue the puck and operate an up-tempo transition game.
“It’s very key for our players to identify with our identity and play to it,” Wilson said. “With us, it’s about speed and advancing the puck as quickly as possible.
“You want to establish and play your style. What we want to be is a very fast team and be entertaining enough that our fans enjoy the show, and we win.
“That’s what we’re trying to establish nightly.”
It doesn’t always work for the Leafs, the second-youngest team in the NHL at an average age of 26.7 years. Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Senators was Toronto’s third in four games, and third in a row on home ice.
“We didn’t have a killer instinct, and then the inevitable things that are going to happen when you’re not really digging in, happened,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t until the last five minutes that we were able to get in there with any kind of purpose to create chances.”
Still, they’ve accomplished their objective more often than not this season. It’s a formula that’s turning heads around the league and producing results, both in terms of the team and the individuals.
Left-winger Phil Kessel, who cost the club two first-round draft picks when he was acquired from the Boston Bruins, is delivering on that investment, leading the NHL in goals (12) and points (24).
“It’s great,” Lupul said, seeing a turnaround among those who are Toronto’s harshest critics.
“Even when we were winning at the start, you could hear people at first saying, ‘Oh, they’re winning now, but it’s not going to continue.’ Now we’re still in the top half of the Eastern Conference and I think we’re starting to make some believers.”
Not that finding believers amid hockey-mad Toronto, where the Leafs haven’t lifted a Stanley Cup since the spring of 1967, is a challenging task.
They come from all over to worship at the altar of Leafs Nation.
“I think they’re going to go all the way,” Tietz said. “People say this is a building year, but I’m telling you this is not a building year.
“This is the year, and it’s going to be one of many great years for the Leafs.”
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