Top Shelf: Leafs stay hungry despite fast start

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Updated: 10/17/2013 2:42 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Toronto Maple Leafs know all too well how bad things tend to happen when you exhale and breath a sigh of relief.

After the Maple Leafs suffered a monumental collapse in last season's playoffs, the club should realize that nothing is over until it's over. So, the club is staying humble in 2013-14 despite beginning the campaign on a torrid 6-1-0 start.

"We understand that 6-1 is just a stat," Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle said after Wednesday's practice. "We need to play better."

Of course, Carlyle is right. With less than one-tenth of its regular-season schedule in the books, this is not the time for a team to sit back and admire its accomplishments. After all, the only thing of value that can be gained in the regular season is a trip to the playoffs and for a franchise like Toronto, which hasn't won a Stanley Cup title since 1967, that is only where the quest begins.

Although there is still a long way to go before Toronto can prove itself as a legitimate Cup contender, it's difficult to not be impressed at the Maple Leafs' run to start the season. Toronto enters Thursday setting the pace the Eastern Conference with 12 points and is tied with the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues for the top spot in the NHL standings. The Avalanche are the only team to beat the Maple Leafs, as Patrick Roy's club edged Toronto by a 2-1 score on Oct. 8.

Outside of that home loss to the Avs, however, no team has been able to hold Toronto under three goals in any game this season. With 3.71 goals per game, the Maple Leafs are ranked fourth in the NHL in scoring, leaving them behind only San Jose, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

However, the offensive prowess of Toronto was not really in question heading into this season. Last season, the club ranked sixth in the NHL with 3.02 goals per game and when healthy, the Leafs boast serious depth up front with guys like Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri providing production. This season, even Mason Raymond, who signed with Toronto after a successful professional tryout with the club last month, is joining the act with four goals and four assists through seven games.

What is truly surprising is how Carlyle's Leafs have managed to increase their offensive output in the early going while also dramatically improving things at the back end.

The acquisition of goaltender Jonathan Bernier over the summer certainly has helped the club make the transformation into a stingy team. Bernier was stuck behind Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings, but he has flourished while getting significant playing time in Toronto.

Bernier is 4-1-0 with a 1.74 goals against average and .946 save percentage while outplaying last season's No. 1 netminder James Reimer. Although Reimer has a higher 3.18 GAA this season, he is still 2-0 and gives the Maple Leafs another solid option between the pipes should Bernier get injured or falls off his early season pace.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for Toronto in its playoff collapse against the Boston Bruins last spring, but it's fairly obvious defense and goaltending had something to do with it. So, the addition of Bernier to the fold made sense and his presence could help the team avoid another situation like the one that occurred last May against the Bruins.

The Leafs surprised just about everyone by pushing Boston to seven games in the opening round of last spring's playoffs and then held a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7 before the unthinkable happened. The Bruins scored three times in the final 10 minutes of regulation to send Game 7 into overtime and then won it 5-4 on a Patrice Bergeron goal in the extra session. Adding insult to injury, the hated Bruins went on to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance after eclipsing the Maple Leafs in the classic Game 7 battle.

It's too easy an answer to say Bernier would've prevented the meltdown in Boston, but it's not crazy to think he offers the club an improved option in net over Reimer, especially when it comes down to crunch time.

The important thing about Toronto's start to this season is the Leafs are eager to put the ghosts of the 2013 playoffs behind them. After all, Toronto had missed the postseason for a club-record seven straight years before making it back last spring and hardly anybody expected the Leafs to beat Boston in the playoffs.

However, the Leafs overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to force a Game 7 against the Bruins and then seemingly took control of that decisive game before blowing it. By doing so, Toronto was able to quickly raise the expectations folks had for them before watching it all fade way right in front of everyone's eyes.

Of course, Toronto can't do anything right now to prove last spring's collapse won't be the moment that defines this franchise. Keeping up this tremendous start to the season would be a good place to start.

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