So here we are Toronto Maple Leafs fans, the playoffs are on our radar once again and we will play our arch rivals: The Boston Bruins.
Just over a year ago we fought a hard series against the Bruins, but it all came undone in the 3rd period of game 7, stop me if you heard that before.
For some reason though, people are counting out the Leafs given their past experiences in a playoff scenario. It’s been over 10 years since we have seen the second round in Toronto, so what needs to go right against Boston?
Skill and Speed
The Leafs forward core is stacked on paper. Having players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares are the top three on the teams scoring amongst forwards. Morgan Rielly has had an incredible offensive season amongst defenders in the league with over 70 points this season, the highest since Tomas Kaberle‘s 67 points in 82 games back in 2005-06. The team has had so many different contributions as well with emerging pieces such as Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen stepping up, and having William Nylander back into the fold helps a lot. The team arguably has more depth in scoring than the Bruins with guys like Zach Hyman, Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri and even Tyler Ennis. The team sits 3rd Overall in goals for per game (3.5) and 8th on the power-play (22.1%) which definitely shows that this team can score their way out of trouble and provide stable offence.
Hands down this team is one of the fastest and most-skilled among the league. But, there is a perception that the Toronto Maple Leafs needed to add some grit and toughness (like Wayne Simmonds) at the deadline and that the Leafs need to match the Bruins’ physicality to get by them. Yet, you can make the argument that isn’t true. After all, the Tampa Bay Lightning got passed them last season in six games because of how fast and skilled the team was, so I’m sure the Leafs could do the same.
Here is what I presume the Leafs Forward core will be come playoff time:
Marleau- Kadri- Kapanen
Moore- Gauthier- Ennis
With these forward lines, the Leafs should be able to dominate the Bruins defensive core.
Defence, Defence, Defence
This is one of the most crucial aspects to the Leafs becoming threats in the playoffs: their blue-line. Over the past couple of years, it’s been hands down one of the most criticized aspects of the team. Yes, the team is getting scoring from Morgan Rielly, but defencemen are supposed to help keep the puck from going in your net. With the addition of Jake Muzzin to the core, it could help take pressure off of some other guys as he has quite a bit of playoff experience from his time in Los Angeles. However, the team still has some gaping holes. It’s not perfect, no team is, but it goes without saying the teams defensive play has been an issue throughout the season, especially against Boston. With Travis Dermott now back and Jake Gardiner appearing to return before the playoffs, the team will be fully healthy again.
However, the team and Mike Babcock need to put together the lines that actually work and click together. Now if I was a betting man, the pairings would look something like this come game 1.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Why is Muzzin playing bottom 6 minutes with Dermott?” Well, these were the pairings Babcock was using up until Gardiner went down with an injury. I could see why it was done given that Dermott is one of the players expected to take a big leap with the team next season, and having a guy like Muzzin on his line helps bring mentorship to the young up and coming Leaf. Obviously fans have come to not like the Rielly-Hainsey pairing, given how much Hainsey is taxed. I agree that a 38-year-old playing over 20 mins a night is not great, but he has grown on me a little over the past few games.
If I was in charge; here is what I would do for the playoffs defence lineups:
Now, why these pairings? Well for one you take Hainsey off the top pairing, taking less minutes to preserve his body. You can still have him kill penalties, but also help provide more mentorship to Dermott, who has played with Hainsey briefly after acquiring Jake Muzzin.
I do understand why Gardiner and Zaitsev is an odd pairing, I question it myself in all honesty, but it’s what the team would likely do. I would rather put Muzzin with Zaitsev, so that Muzzin could take some of the pressure off of that pairing and provide more safety on the ice.
In terms of the top pairingm, Rielly and Gardiner have played together before, even under Babcock, and the two have generated some success together. Yes they are both left-handed shots, but Rielly could play the right side. Also, the pair’s skating abilities could help move the puck into more offensive scenarios during play.
Embed from Getty Images
Now, it’s no surprise that Frederik Andersen is going to start in the playoffs for Toronto. Rightfully so, as he is the reason this team has made it to the playoffs in his 3 seasons wearing the blue and white. So what’s the issue here? Well, Freddie hasn’t always been steady. This past month, we saw that he was most likely very tired and beat up due to the gruelling schedule. The other night on Long Island, we saw what our goaltender is with a very tight 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. Despite his great numbers during the regular season, Andersen has struggled in the playoffs. With a .896 save percentage last year, Andersen has something to prove this year. We know he can steal games, heck he practically helped force a game 7 last season, but the biggest worry for me is consistency. I believe there’s still a lot more potential to Andersen’s game that will be shown in the playoffs. So, we just need to wait and see.
Yes, I’m talking to you Leafs Nation. Us as fans need to step up and be optimistic of our team. Don’t let the recent slump phase you. Teams struggle all the time. Sure the media has to downplay the Leafs, it’s their job. Every team has its faults, but remember the best team is not guaranteed to win the whole thing. Sure, we have our faults, we have our inconsistencies and our doubts, but are we seriously going to throw in the towel before the playoffs even start? What kind of fanbase does that? You ever hear Ric Flair saying “To be the man, you got to beat the man.” That applies here, to be the best, you got to beat the best. Heck did Boston even have a good last few games? No. Prior to their win against Columbus, they lost their last 2 being outscored 10-4 against non playoff teams.
Also, we (Leaf Fans) are quickly jumping to the negatives. The what ifs. The collapses. The disappointments. What about all the glorious moments? The playoff runs of the past where the team showed what winning was all about. The infamous 1945 comeback, which saw the team go from 3-0 in the series, to storming back and winning 4 straight to win their 4th Stanley Cup. Or better yet, how about 1967? The year everyone jokes about. The oldest team to ever win the Stanley Cup, the group being known as the “Over the Hill” team. Little do some know, the team lost 10 games in a row that season, dealt with countless injuries, the absence of their coach Punch Imlach and having to go through the two best teams in the league in Chicago and Montreal. Yeah, the league was small back then, but it goes to show you that nothing is impossible. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley cup last year against all odds, so who is to say the Leafs can’t defy them too? The teams in 1945 and 1967 proved a lot of people wrong back then, and I’m sure that this team could too.
Leafs Nation, we stand witness for a reason. I expect Scotiabank Arena and Maple Leafs Square to be loud and proud of this blue and white team. As Steve Dangle always asks us.
Are. You. In?
stats from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com and foxsports.com
featured image photo credit – Josh Tessler