TORONTO -- "It's good to see people smiling in here again."
That was a random female Toronto Maple Leafs fan, walking through the Air Canada Centre concourse between periods, perhaps on her way to sample one of Burkie's wieners. It wasn't something I had expected to hear at the arena last night.
I expected doom, with a touch of gloom. I expected to experience the depressive, frustrating vibe that's dogged the Leafs since its horrific start. I expected a bad home team play badly at home, mediocre goaltenders exhibiting mediocrity and a textbook Ron Wilson press conference with more snarky rhetorical defensive mechanisms than solutions.
Instead, I get creeping optimism from a team that's five points out of a playoff seed after dominating the Atlanta Thrashers, 5-2, on Monday.
"It's a lot more fun to be around in the locker room because ... yeah, it's like a winning [vibe]."
So has the vibe changed from the plummeting fortunes and hapless play that characterized the team early this year and had Boston Bruins fans counting draft lottery balls while possessing the Leafs' top pick?
"Absolutely," said winger Lee Stempniak(notes), who opened the scoring goal against the Thrash. "You try and stay positive when you're not playing well, but it's hard. I guess over our last 10 games we're 6-2-2, which is a really good time for us. We're definitely building on it, getting good goaltending lately, scoring more goals ... we're seeing some really positive signs."
Question: If the Leafs had been 2-2-6 in their last 10, would Stempniak have been able to quote that as quickly?
"Nah ... but you guys [in the media] would tell me what the record was."
It was a fair point, and so is this one: It's reasonable to start believing in this Leafs team a little bit. Their defense in front of Toskala was inconsistent but good when it needed to be, especially in limiting Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) to one shot on goal. They're getting some good offensive contributions around the lineup, with Alex Ponikarovsky scoring 9 points in his last 6 games. Phil Kessel(notes) is dangerous every time he hops over the boards.
(About Kessel: I've been debating all season whether he stands out because he's that good, or because he's in constant comparison with other Leafs forwards on the ice. I'm still not sure of the answer, but know this: He's still learning what it means to be the flag-carrier for this franchise. After skating in cement against Boston, he was a different player under different conditions against Atlanta. But they needed him in the Boston game more than last night, and his maturation as a star has to reach a level where he handles that pressure the next time he faces it. Which, coincidentally, is Thursday.)
With all this positivity around the rink, it was almost comfort food to see the Leafs' flaws on display against the Thrashers. For example, highways don't have as many overpasses as a Toronto odd-man rush.
In speaking with some media and fans at the game, the impression I get is that the optimism here is completely tempered: No ordering of rings, no planning of parade routes. The Leafs get the New York Islanders at home, Boston again on the road and then the Washington Capitals on Saturday night. It'll be interesting to see where that optimism is if Toronto gets on a little roll the rest of the week.
But is Ron Wilson ready to check the standings every day?
"No, no. I know if I turn the paper upside down where the standings are, I could see we're at the top," he said. "I'm not counting; 'Tonight were four, then we're three, then we're five [points out.].' That's for the last month of the year."