Idle hands are the devil’s playground, so they say. I guess, then, it’s good that I’ve been a little too busy (and under the weather) to write much in the way of coherent sports analysis the past few weeks. I say that, of course, because if I had wrote the latest Leafs’ update at the following times, the titles probably would have looked something like this:

October 25 (0-7-1) 8/82 of What We’ll Know: I Shouldn’t Have Come Back to Hockey Fanhood
October 27 (1-7-1) 9/82 of What We’ll Know: Holy F’N S! OMG They Won! ROFL BAHAHA I’ve Lost IT! GO LEAFS WHOOOO!
November 4th (1-7-5) 13/82 of What We’ll Know: As Much as I Hate a Point for an OT Loss, It Is Saving Toronto

As it is, today (3-7-5) the title is as above. Things are looking just a little bit brighter and more promising than a week or two weeks or three weeks ago. The Leafs have a few wins, haven’t lost in regulation in seven games (Is this worth boasting about? Yes.), and now sit tied for 28th in the NHL, with a chance to claim sole possession of 27th with a win tonight against the almost-as-lowly Minnesota Wild.

So what have we learned through 15/82 (18.3%) of the season?

Well for one thing, the oft-misguided uber-optimism of Leafs Nation during the preseason might not have been so misguided after all. Over the past seven games, the team has played a more inspired and up-tempo brand of hockey, rallying around the debut of high-profile acquisitions Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson. While a 3-0-4 run over seven games is hardly impressive, it is a reminder of what fans thought this team could be before the season started - a scrappy team that others don’t really want to play, and a team that might just have the “truculence” to sneak into the playoffs.

From where we’re sitting now, it seems an uphill battle. Luckily, there are 67 games remaining and a lot more to look forward to. With Gustavsson locked in as the starter and looking much better than in his short pre-injury audition, the team has been better able to hold leads and build momentum from their own end out. Additionally, Kessel has looked good and promises that he will improve…after all, this is essentially still his pre-season. Finding him appropriate linemates remains a challenge, but at the very least he’s found a home on the league’s best(!?!) powerplay unit.

Speaking of which, Tomas Kaberle has been an absolute marvel on the powerplay, tallying a league-best 12 powerplay points. In fact, Kaberle leads all defensemen in points with 18, which, because of the somewhat poor accounting method that is plus-minus, hides the fact that he has been stellar despite his -4 rating.

Other bright spots include the improving play of Mikhail Grabovski and the revelation that is Ian White, a long-shot to finish 2008-09 with the team but a clear top-4 defenseman since.

An additional bright spot is the play of the youngsters on the Toronto Marlies, who sit at 6-4-1 buoyed by the point-a-game paces of Christian Hanson, Michael Zigomanis, Jiri Tlusty, and Viktor Stalberg. Unfortunately, Stalberg and Tlusty have combined for just one point in 10 games with the Leafs, but one has to question if this AHL “positive” is simply another reason to question why some of these youngsters aren’t with the big league club.

Oh, and Nazem Kadri has 10 goals and six assists in 16 games with the OHL’s London Knights. I hope to have a better progress report after I see him in action Friday in Kitchener. But the Leafs are right, trust, he shouldn’t be with the Leafs yet.

Obviously, the Leafs have a way to go still….they’re in 28th place, and Leaf Nation is celebrating to a degree. However, the next little while provides more room for optimism, as the Leafs could close out November on quite a positive note. Their schedule for the rest of the month is pictured below.

There is a very winnable game against the Wild tonight, followed by a tough set against Chicago, Calgary, and Ottawa. After that stretch, though, the Leafs play just one team above .500 in their next five, and that is the possibly-Ovechkin-less Capitals. Not to get carried away…wait, carried away, am I not a Leaf fan? Let me get carried away…a 6-4 record is absolutely possible over the rest of the month, and while that would only sit the Leafs at 9-11-5, it would be a far cry from what the team was looking at a few weeks ago.

Obviously, the team has to take the momentum they’ve gained and push forward with it. Tonight’s game against a beatable team will be huge for both morale and momentum. A loss sends them into a tough three-game stretch on a sour note, while a win gives them a winning ‘streak’ and possibly a sense of a fresh start with October behind them. You can never really say 1/82 is more important than another 1/82 of your season, but tonight is a curiously important contest.