Leafs’ First Round Series Hinges on Defense

When the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped their final regular season game of the 2016-17 campaign against the Columbus Blue Jackets, it slotted the young team into a matchup with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. As the NHL’s top team for two consecutive years, few expected that the Leafs would legitimately compete with Capitals, let alone have a shot to defeat them in the opening round.

Despite the odds, the Toronto Maple Leafs have found considerable playoff success against the NHL’s top team. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

However, if the first two games of the series provided any insight, it was that the Leafs are not only more capable in the playoffs than previously thought but, also, that Washington remains a fragile postseason competitor. In fact, with the Capitals having failed to ascend past the second round in their last 11 attempts, in addition to Toronto’s early success, the Leafs defeating Washington has become a more realistic possibility than previously thought possible.

Yet, despite their remarkable success at the Verizon Center to open the series, Toronto remains locked in the midst of a highly competitive contest. While the Capitals may have stumbled out of the gate, part of which due to the stellar and determined play of the Leafs, they remain a very dangerous and capable opponent who could easily dismantle Toronto moving forward.

As such, given the state of the matchup and how closely each of the first two games was played, the outcome of the series could boil down to one specific aspect of the game. Unfortunately, for the Leafs and their fans, this crucial element, or lack thereof, will be especially difficult for the team to overcome.

Drained Defense

Prior to the beginning of this series, the Capitals appeared to hold the advantage over the Leafs at every position on the ice.

Braden Holtby has long been one of the NHL’s top netminders. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Offensively, Washington possessed a much deeper and potent attack, with virtually four lines capable of scoring on a consistent basis. On defense, the ‘Caps’ strong, deep and experienced blue of varying size, skill, and temperament presented a seemingly unsurpassable wall for Toronto to penetrate. Further, in goal, Washington iced the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Braden Holtby, whose winning pedigree has long spoken for itself.

So, when the Leafs began their playoff run without the services of Nikita Zaitsev and then, of course, lost Roman Polak to a season-ending knee injury in Game 2, it only furthered Toronto’s deficiency defensively. Then, add in the over 40 minutes of ice time played by both Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner in the team’s double-overtime win and the Leafs’ blue line quickly became drained and depleted like never before.

Further accentuating this issue is a lack of organizational depth on the blue line. Before losing both Zaitsev and Polak to injury, the Leafs’ defense was thin at best, with a lack of experience and ability present throughout the lineup. So, when those previously mentioned defenders succumbed to injuries, it forced specific, untested players into logging significant minutes on Toronto’s playoff blue line.

One of these players was none other than Martin Marincin. Despite being a healthy scratch in 30 of the Leafs’ final 32 regular season games, Marincin jumped into the lineup to begin the series and enjoyed over 30:00 minutes of ice time in Toronto’s Game 2 victory. Although he has played a sound game on short notice, Marincin’s key giveaway in Game 1 and general presence in the Leafs’ postseason lineup is yet another indication of the team’s lack of depth defensively.

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In the midst of a playoff run, it is ideal to have a veteran defender of notable experience on hand to insert into the lineup in the case of an injury, rather than an unproven and largely inexperienced blueliner. While Marincin’s surprising playoff debut has been successful thus far, playing out of his element and in important situations for Toronto could prove costly in the near future as the first round matchup progresses.

Fortunately for the Leafs, Zaitsev was cleared to play on Apr. 17 and scheduled to suit up for Game 3, meaning Alexey Marchenko will remain a healthy scratch – for the time being. As yet another young and largely inexperienced defender, inserting Marchenko into Toronto’s lineup likely would have cemented a series victory for the Capitals, as the Leafs’ make-shift defense would be simply no match for Washington.

Defense Critical to Series Victory

Given the dire state of Toronto’s blue line, it goes without saying that defense will be more crucial than ever to the outcome of this series.

Although it was quite clear that the Capitals held an advantage over the Leafs defensively prior to the beginning of the matchup, injuries have made matters considerably worse for the latter. With a significant injury to one of the team’s most experienced postseason competitors and a handful of untested defenders ready to step in if necessary, Toronto’s blue line is as thin and inexperienced as ever.

Roman Polak’s season-ending injury was not only gruesome but will put the Leafs in a tough spot moving forward. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Further, given these injuries and the unseasoned nature of the team’s depth defenders, blueliners such as Rielly and Gardiner are being faced with monumental if not overwhelming ice time and responsibilities. Of course, it goes without saying that they will be more than ready to take on this test, but over the course of a potential seven-game series, will their high-level of play be sustainable?

These questions and others like them are those unanswered by legitimate contenders, as they possess the depth necessary to replace injured players as they occur without hesitation. While the Leafs are, quite obviously, a growing young team, defensive depth must be a specific area of focus as the organization continues to develop into a bonafide postseason challenger.

In the meantime, defense will remain crucial to the Leafs’ success, or lack thereof, against the Capitals. If Toronto wishes to pull off the incredible upset, the team will need massive contributions from their depth defensemen, if not a level of play which they have yet to display at the NHL level. In possession of one of, if not the most lethal offensive in the league, the Capitals will test the Leafs’ blue line regularly and with dangerous potency.

While injuries and inexperience have and will continue to inhibit Toronto’s play defensively, these factors are not insurmountable. If Toronto’s regular season proved anything, it was to never count out the Leafs despite their youth, unpredictability and raw skill.