Toronto Maple Leafs Mats Sundin smiles as he skates off the ice after scoring the overtime game winning goal in the Leafs 5-4 win over the Calgary Flames in Toronto on Saturday. The goal was the 500th of Sundin\'s career. (CP/Frank Gunn)
The Leafs lead the NHL with an average of 38.8 shots on goal per game, having surpassed the 40-shot plateau three times already this season, something they did only once all of last year. Toronto was 25th in the NHL last season with an average of 28.3 shots per game.
"I'm really happy with the way we played these first six games," said Sundin, whose hat trick Saturday led his team to a 5-4 overtime win over Calgary. "Even though we lost some games in overtime, we've had 30, 40 shots against some pretty good hockey teams. We keep putting the odds on our side by doing that."
And that's the point. Head coach Paul Maurice believes in the law of averages and his system preaches shots, shots, shots. Because eventually the goals will come.
"I also think the game has changed," said the first-year coach of the Leafs. "A rebound is now a chance where as two years ago, by the time the guy got to the rebound he was half undressed. There was nothing left and he was probably bleeding. Now, you can't stop somebody driving your net."
The Leafs haven't always finished their chances this season, but if the shots keep coming something will happen. Consider the last two games for Toronto, a combined 11 goals were scored against the best two goaltenders in the NHL, Martin Brodeur of New Jersey and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff of the Flames.
"I think we've generated an awful lot of really good offence," said Maurice. " . . . I think we've had enough success with our forwards putting it at the net and creating some rebounds. In any parts of the game we started to fall off (Saturday night), we passed up a couple of shots and as soon as we did that we started playing more to the outside and that changes our game. It's very difficult to forecheck the way we want to if you're pulling away from the front of the net instead of going to it."
No one will argue with the success his predecessor Pat Quinn had during his seven seasons behind the Leafs bench - with Toronto missing the playoffs only once - but Maurice has won over his players with a system that embraces the new NHL.
"Paul Maurice and the coaching staff have us playing a more high-paced game that is the new NHL," said Sundin, the captain delivering his stamp of approval. "We still have a lot to learn. But that's the only way we're going to have success this year, we have to play this way. We're still making mistakes and I think we can do better, but at least the emphasis of our game is more skating, a high-paced game.
"You can tell, we played Ottawa, played New Jersey, we played some really strong-skating teams, and we're not falling behind or being outshot anymore," continued Sundin, clearly enamoured. "Whereas you look at a few years ago and I felt we needed great goaltending to win every game. Now I like the way we're putting the odds on our side."
Case in point, Andrew Raycroft didn't have his 'A' game Saturday night, arguably the first time that's happened this season. But the Leafs found a way to win. Rarely did Toronto manage a win in years past if Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour took a night off. Maurice wants more from his players. Yes he's pleased with their 3-1-2 start to the season, but he honestly believes his squad can produce even more shots and even more offence as the year goes on.
"I thought early in the game (Saturday night) we still left some offence on the table," said Maurice. "We're not quite at the pace that we can get to but we're getting better and the guys are starting to understand it better and I think they enjoy playing it like that. That's the goal, we want to have a certain tempo and pace to our game regardless of who we play. Some nights it's not going to look so good, some nights it's going to look great."
One thing's for sure, the Leafs won't be playing too many boring affairs this season under a system that features both teams trading chances all night long.
"For me I feel like we're getting an edge in those chances so I don't mind trading them a little bit," said Maurice. "You need a payoff. . . . And I like watching the game a whole lot from the bench to be honest with you. It's a lot more fun to coach a team like this."
Maurice also doesn't believe in rolling four forward lines like his predecessor. It worked for Quinn as the Leafs generally had a very balanced offence. But Maurice is putting a heavy load on his top players, namely Sundin. On Saturday night, the fourth line barely saw the ice. Wade Belak played one shift and 40 seconds in total, Aleksander Suglobov three shifts for 2:29 and Bates Battaglia four shifts for 3:03.
"Part of that is that I want them to get used to that. I want those top-end guys to get used to playing every third shift a little bit," said Maurice.
Sundin is averaging 21:46 minutes per game so far this season, up from the 19:58 he averaged last season. Sundin rarely ever broke the 20-minute barrier under Quinn, who didn't want to overuse him. Sundin played 22:48 on Saturday night and it's only going to continue to be that way under Maurice.
"He's very fit and he worked really hard right from the get-go in camp," Maurice said, referring to Sundin as one of the fittest players on his team.
"He's just been a horse and a great leader. He's been a pleasure to watch," added Maurice. "One of the pleasures of being here is getting to know him a little bit more and see the true personality in the locker-room. Very intense, very easy to work with. He's open, likes to talk about the game.
"But he's far more involved in the leadership than maybe people might think because he does have that quiet persona as a perception of him but the opposite is true. He's very intense and into the game. It's been a really enjoyable experience."