With six games remaining and setting a franchise record for most wins in a season (50) and points (106), the Toronto Maple Leafs are gearing up for the possibility of a deep playoff run.
We’ve heard it all before with this team in regards to their past failures and inability to find success in games when it mattered the most. However, the mentality has been different this season as this team appears more resilient and determined than ever. Despite the success this season, it doesn’t mean anything unless they get over their playoff woes and find success. Here are three keys for the Maple Leafs in finding success in the postseason.
Overcoming Mental Aspect
It’s no secret that the biggest enemy the Maple Leafs will face aren’t the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers, it’s themselves. Too many times when things are going right for them, they lack the ability to finish off a playoff series or show any sort of “killer instinct”. From Game 7 collapses, to stars not scoring at key moments, it’s been a struggle for the Maple Leafs in the post season.
When the playoffs start, the ability to overcome the mental aspect of the game becomes magnified. Given the Maple Leafs long history against the Bruins and a loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round in 2021 where they were the better team, you can understand how the past will always creep into their minds and weigh on them.
Good teams always find a way to use their past failures to their advantage and overcome those obstacles. It’s been a challenge for this core where they continue to have regular season dominance. When the playoffs start, it’s a different story and when the pressure mounts, that’s when they begin to falter. However, when speaking to the media post trade deadline, head coach Sheldon Keefe feels the attitude has shifted.
“We know what we need to do. We know where we need to go. We know what we’re trying to accomplish, so let’s get to work,” Keefe said according to TSN’s Mark Masters.
While the Maple Leafs have not fared well against teams lower in the standings– yes, it was rough to watch given how dominant this team can be– they have shown to keep up and even go above and beyond against teams they’re battling at the top of the standings. They’re at their best when they play top end teams and show the “killer instinct” that was lacking in the past.
A recent stretch of games against the Lightning, Panthers and Bruins showed their resiliency, offensive capabilities and will to fight in the toughest situations. The offense has been firing on all cylinders even during this final stretch, as the Maple Leafs now have seven players with 50 points or more. The regular season can serve as a precursor of what’s to come in the playoffs. Even though it’s a clean slate and teams start from scratch, the hope is that the Maple Leafs are able to translate the success they’ve had this season.
Though their toughest test may come from the blue line.
Defense and Penalty Kill
The defense has been pretty steady this season, though the second pairing of Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl have left many scratching their heads, leading to general manager Kyle Dubas to make some deadline moves to shore up his blueline.
The Maple Leafs trade deadline acquisitions have played a big part since coming into the lineup and a reason why they could go far in the postseason. Both Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano provide a steady presence in their own end, getting into the lanes and clearing bodies in front of the net to try and alleviate pressure on their goaltenders. Lyubushkin provides a more physical element when the intensity increases and Giordano continues to show great poise and little panic under pressure.
Since the deadline, the Maple Leafs have shown to prioritize a strong and steady presence within their own zone, as they rank sixth in shots against per game with 28.5. In addition, they’re ninth in terms of five-on-five Corsi against and 11th in scoring chances against. When the playoffs start, you need strong defensive players like Lyubushkin and Giordano to step up and play a strong shut down game. Both players are known to do that and that’s what was missing previously. The added depth and stability that they bring makes this team stronger and it shows as both continue to have a strong impact.
We know the offensive power that the Maple Leafs have on the power play and 5v5, but they are just as aggressive and extremely effective when they’re down a man. Their ability to overwhelm the opposition at the blue line to force turnovers and quickly transition to an odd-man rush for a scoring chance has been on constant display all season. It’s been a difference maker at times to try and gain some momentum for them when they needed it.
They have the seventh best penalty kill in the league with 83.0%, but the most striking number is their 12 goals scored when shorthanded with Ilya Mikheyev leading the way with four. This is much due in part to assistant coach Dean Chynoweth and his approach to overhauling a system that needed a new identity.
This has definitely been a sticking point for the Maple Leafs all season as they have the speed, positioning and smarts to hurt their opponent on the penalty kill. They’re getting goals and contributions from everyone as Mikheyev, Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall, Alexander Kerfoot and David Kampf have all been extremely effective defensively and offensively in that situation. It was an aspect that needed to improve as it has hurt them in the past. Now, it has become a strength for them.
There was no bigger question mark this season, especially in the second half, than the Maple Leafs’ goaltending situation.
After a roaring start to the season in net, All-Star goaltender Jack Campbell posted a save percentage above .930 in the first two quarters in 2021-22. He hasn’t hit a .900 SV% for an overall month since December and the number of quality starts (54.3%) hasn’t been there. He has a decent .913 SV% at even strength, but there were a lot of questionable goals allowed. What once was looking like a Vezina caliber season, Campbell faced a rough stretch and even sustained a rib injury that hampered his game.
Petr Mrazek hasn’t provided the kind of backup goaltending needed, especially when Campbell started to struggle. Mrazek has had multiple chances to try and show that consistency, but his over aggressive tendencies and movements in the crease has been his downfall all season. Even when he looks great, things take a downward turn. He sustained a third groin injury this season and Erik Källgren has become the backup. While Kallgren has looked great at times, the idea of having a 25-year-old rookie goaltender in net isn’t the ideal scenario as the depth has come into question.
If the Maple Leafs have any chance of making some noise in the playoffs the goaltending has to be on its game and not be inconsistent like it was during the second half of the season. Campbell’s play before his injury was a concern, but it seems to have picked up since his return. Although his numbers don’t show it in April (.896 SV%, 3.12 goals against average), he’s made some big time saves to keep his team in the game. He’s going to be relied on heavily down the stretch and when the playoffs start.
When healthy, Mrazek probably wouldn’t provide any reassurance if he needed to step in the postseason as his play has been suspect all season. You didn’t know which Mrazek you were going to get. Kallgren, although looking sharp at times, it’s difficult for a rookie goaltender to come and take over the crease in the playoffs. Though his experience does speak for itself, the NHL playoffs are different than the SHL.
Campbell is the starter, as they’re going to rely on him to be a steady presence in net. Should something happen to him, the Maple Leafs are back in a difficult spot. They need him to be at his best. If they’re able to get quality goaltending that they had at the beginning of the season, they can go far.
While you could argue that the stars need to show up this time around, everything always comes back to their ability to overcoming their past and the defensive side of the puck. If the Maple Leafs excel in these areas, this could be a strong playoff run.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.