Goaltending has a LOT to do with it. Our shots against per game are pretty similar right now (30.8/game last year, 30.2/game this year) but our GAA is way down.
Last year, our goaltending was essentially ~0.900 save %, whereas this year Reimers going at a 0.929% pace... our GAA compared to last year is 2.58 instead of 3.16.. that's a HUGE difference. Our goals for is pretty similar though (2.83 this year, 2.77 last year).
So our GAA is way down, our GF is comparable and our shots against are comparable. It's not an exact science, seeing as quality of shots can differ. But that's really the big difference for me is goaltending. Reimers looked much better, calmer, better glove hand, better rebounds, and its showing on that stats sheet.
The Leafs may be giving up the same amount of shots as last year, but I'd rather see advanced statistics showing the amount of quality chances they've given up this year compared to last year.
I only remember the Leafs giving up one breakaway this season, and a handful of two-on-ones. Last season the Leafs would give up one breakaway and a few odd-man rushes a game, which of course led to the poor goaltending stats.
While I agree that the team is playing better defensively, limiting chances and protecting the goalie better (how many times last year did we see goals where our players totally screened our goalie compared to this year?), there have been defensive breakdowns where we've left them high and dry and they've answered the bell.
As for the team identity changing, I think that until the Montreal game, there was a lot of adjusting to the style of game, where yeah, guys would fight and stick up for each other and block shots, but it hadn't fully permeated the room. I think the Montreal game, while only one game, can be a launching point where the whole room realizes that this is the way we play, everyone is playing for each other, and we can start to see more performances like it with everyone buying into the mentality now.
That's not saying this can't be an aberration where it's a one time thing and they go back to playing a less dominating style of play, but I'll take the over on this becoming a common trend for this team. We just don't have any lines that can be pushed around so easily anymore. Every line and every pairing seems to have at least one guy who will answer the bell if need be, and that's the type of identity that we've been striving for and are finally starting to see. Whether it leads to playoffs, only time will tell, but this team can be greater than the sum of its parts.