Poking the bear…again
The Toronto Maple Leafs are closing in on their 3rd straight playoff appearance since Auston Matthews was drafted and the team has only gotten better over the past three seasons. However, even with the massive addition of John Tavares, are the Leafs good enough to push the issue for the ultimate prize and end the drought?
At the start of the season the Maple Leafs were betting favorites in Vegas to win the Stanley Cup, heck even NHL 19 the EA Sports video game simulated the season and had them winning the big shiny trophy in the end. Fantasy is great, but reality for this team is a whole other story given the biggest weakness that has battled this team; defense.
The issue that has haunted this team for the past few years continues to be the fact that no matter how many goals they are scoring (currently the NHL’s 2nd best goals for), they can’t seem to keep shots away from Andersen and rely on him heavily to win games. As good as the Leafs are at scoring, they have won a lot of one goal high scoring games that make Andersen have to stand on his head on a nightly basis. He has faced the 2nd most shots in the NHL. This is a difficult way to play if you want to have a long playoff push, as he will be exhausted before they even get there and relying on Garret Sparks if Freddy happens to get hurt is just not an option. Plus, considering how the team has played in front of him, neither him nor the team seem to have a lot of confidence in those games.
The next problem is that they will have to face their playoff demons as there is a 90% chance they will have to take on the Boston Bruins in round one. In order for the Leafs to do anything in the playoffs, they’ll need to take out Boston. At this point it looks as though they will be starting on the road against one of the hottest teams in the league as Boston has shown no signs of slowing down since they have caught up and passed the Leafs in the standings. However, the Leafs still have a chance to gain home ice advantage. That would be huge considering how intimidating it is to play at TD Garden during a big game, the fans are loud, and they will be a constant factor throughout the games. If the Leafs get home ice it should benefit them and be just the thing they need to get the Bruins off their back and finally see a 2nd round appearance for the first time since 2004…yikes.
Babcock will have his hands full this playoff season as he will be under a ton of fire if the Leafs do not perform to their potential and bow out again in the first round. He needs to balance his lines and figure out a way to have his weak defence perform as strong as possible. His job sounds easy, he just needs to find a way to shut down the Bergeron line and if they can do that and outscore the rest of their lines then they should not have an issue with the Bruins in this series.
Lately however the Leafs are struggling with inconsistencies from player to player as well as the team as a whole. The team has struggled to start games on time this season but have always had Andersen to back stop them and give them a chance to wake up. However, lately Andersen does not seem like himself and has allowed a ton of goals over the past few weeks and the Leafs are putting themselves out of games early in the first only to hope for a come back in the third. If they play like that in Boston they will get destroyed. Boston will not sit back and wait for the Leafs to make a push and the series will be over rather quickly. So they have a bunch of things to figure out if they not only want to compete against the Bruins, but also beat them.
The Leafs are showing right now how inconsistent they can be and how poorly they have been playing of late. Even some of their victories have been subpar. This has led to concern especially knowing the history of the Leafs and their recent past with the Bruins. Without high scoring and Andersen giving a Vezina quality performance I do not know how the Leafs will get past the Bruins. The Bruins may be a one-line team, but they are performing at such a high level right now and that is without David Pastrnak, who come playoffs, will be extremely fresh coming off injury and if he jumps back into play without missing a step, lookout! The Leafs need to rely on their speed and offence to beat the Bruins. If they try anything else and don’t stay out of the box l, they’ll get pinned in their zone and beat up by the larger Bruins team that hits significantly more than the Maple Leafs do.
Maybe part of the inconsistencies is also coming from injuries. The Leafs have had no shortage of injuries and they are all coming at the wrong time. The Leafs already were without Kadri for a few games, then they lost the services of Gardiner and Dermott which has drastically hurt this team defensively. As of right now, it is unknown if they will even be ready for round one. They have also missed time from Kapanen and Gautier as well. All these injuries are piling up at the wrong time for the Leafs and they are hoping some, if not all of these players are ready for Game 1 of the first round. This team already has a ton of holes and compounding that with Gardiner and Dermott out on D and Kapanen with his speed and forecheck missing, it is all the more evident. Plus, let’s not forget that without Gautier helping that 4th line cause some mischief the Leafs will be in trouble as they do not have much to replace those players with.
Fans of the team have begun to panic with everything going on and assuming the Bruins will kill their beloved Leafs in the first round. This is the problem with the current NHL format. We all pretty much knew the Leafs were in a playoff spot and would be making the playoffs by December and by February we had a pretty good idea that the Leafs would play the Bruins. This leaves nothing to the imagination as for the past several months fans had begun to only see the negatives, focusing on why the Bruins will win the series. With the old format when 1 would play 8, 2 would play 7 and sew on, chances are you wouldn’t know what teams would play each other until the last week of the season as teams would move around a lot. Now, the new format takes all that away. Also, the Atlantic Division is terrible, being a three team race from the start and the rest of the teams in the division have been nothing more than white noise. This is a major distraction for fans and players alike as it leads to constant over thinking before a game has even been played in the playoffs. The Leafs did not play horrible against Boston this season so who’s to say that won’t continue.
The Leafs also know at this point that the playoffs are a different animal and there is nothing like it. I believe a defeat like last season in Game 7 will help them, as you never forget that feeling. Hopefully, it gives this team the boost they need to avoid the same result this time around. The big names on this team in Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Reilly, and Andersen need to show up and be superstars for this team. If they don’t perform to their potential, it’ll be much harder for the rest of the team to compete and this season will be a failure.
I do not think the Maple Leafs are good enough yet to make a significant run at the Cup this season. The additions of Tavares and Muzzin have been a huge boost but even with the changes made there are still many holes on this team. However, if this team shows up and plays the way they should, they will give the Bruins a run for their money and likely see a 2nd round appearance. The Leafs are better on paper, but being better on paper only gets you so far, you need to play the games, you need to show up, and you need to prove that you deserve to skate with the big boys as that is the only way to get far in the postseason and one of the reasons the Stanley Cup is arguably the hardest trophy in sports to win. The Leafs can be a very good powerful team some nights and a complete disaster other nights. Depending on which team shows up, that will give us our answer as to how well the Maple Leafs will do in the playoffs.
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