Maple Leafs’ 3 Keys to Slaying the Dragon

It’s going to be a refreshing day when the month of April comes around and I don’t have to write an article to the effect of this one, but today is not that day. With the NHL regular season all wrapped up, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in an all-too-familiar situation. 82 games in the bag with 50 wins and a fourth-place finish in the league to show for it, an accomplishment largely overshadowed by yet another impending first round series staring back at them, once again taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper, the Lightning are the underdogs, although we all know that’s no reason to take them any less lightly.

Sign up for our free ‘Maple Leafs Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.

There’s a lot to suggest that this could finally be the year the Maple Leafs get it done. They’ve found ways to win through tight, defensive play rather than constantly relying on their scoring ability, had consistently good goaltending for most of the season, and added a wave of players at the trade deadline who specialize in “playoff-style hockey”.

Noel Acciari Toronto Maple Leafs
Noel Acciari, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That being said, there was also lots to suggest last season was the year they should have got it done. And the year before. And the year before. So, the statement “this year could be different” means absolutely nothing until the team proves they’ve got it (like anybody needed to know that). However, the pieces are in place this year, so it’s up to the players to show they’ve got what it takes to play more than seven playoff games this season. The first round is going to be the toughest part of the run, so let’s take a look at three keys to finally getting over that hump. 

1. Win the Special Teams Battle 

One of the Maple Leafs’ strengths as a team both this season and over the past few years as a whole, is the power play. They finished second in the league in that category with a 26% power play percentage and first in the league last season, so it’s clearly a weapon for them. Well, in the regular season at least. In last year’s playoffs, it dropped to a lowly 14.3%, and more importantly, they went 0/3 in Game 7’s 2-1 loss last season.

Related: 5 Maple Leafs Who Could Be Difference Makers in the Playoffs

Latest News & Highlights

The Lightning were the fourth-most penalized team in the league this season, and assuming those trends keep up in Round 1, the Maple Leafs have to capitalize on those opportunities when they come. They’ve recently switched things up on the power play, with Ryan O’Reilly taking William Nylander’s spot on the top unit while the latter dropped down to drive the second unit. This is a change that will hopefully take some pressure off of the top unit and boost the second unit alike, after years of loading up the top power play unit. 

I keep mentioning the power play, but the penalty kill is just as if not more important. Because, guess what team had the third-best power play in the league, right behind the Maple Leafs? The team that employs the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. The Lightning may not be as strong as they were last season, but they’ve been to the dance enough times to know how to weaponize that power play when it hurts the most, so the penalty kill will need to be at the top of their game all throughout the first round. 

2. Stable Goaltending From Samsonov 

If there was ever any debate as to who the Maple Leafs’ “guy” would be in the crease for this year’s playoffs, it was slashed after Matt Murray suffered a concussion in his April 2 start against the Detroit Red Wings. In my opinion, the crease was always going to belong to Ilya Samsonov in the end. Outside of a small slump around late December and early January, he’s been by far their most consistent goalie. He finished the season with a record of 27-10-5, a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.33, and a save percentage (SV%) of .919, enough to warrant some consideration for an extension this summer.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The reality is, when the opposing netminder in the first round is Andrei Vasilevskiy, you need your goaltender to stand tall. The Maple Leafs actually ended up catching him in a rare rough stretch in last season’s first round, with his SV% winding up lower than then-goaltender Jack Campbell’s but it didn’t matter in the end, since the latter’s SV% was .897 by the conclusion of the first round. 

With newly-acquired Jake McCabe teaming up with T.J. Brodie as the team’s shutdown pair as well as some added experience in Luke Schenn, I feel good about the team’s ability to play a strong defensive game in front of Samsonov. That being said, a team’s defense is only as good as the goaltender behind them, and given the number of offensive threats the Lightning have, the Maple Leafs can’t be expected to rely on their offense to get them out of every game. 

3. Don’t Cheat the Game 

This is a very vague talking point, but I really don’t know how to summarize it better than this. The Maple Leafs did just about everything they could to defeat the Lightning last season, and unlike the previous season’s series against the Montreal Canadiens, they didn’t lose due to a fragile mental game or a poor effort. That being said, coming up one goal short of advancing is no different than coming up five goals short if you don’t make it out of the first round. And, the Lightning are a team that won’t give you any shortcuts. 

There’s a grocery list of things that fall under the umbrella of not cheating the game. Things like not getting too comfortable with a lead, not getting discouraged when they’re down by a few goals, and keeping to their structure regardless of how the game is going, are all going to be crucial to success in this year’s playoffs. Because, again, the Lightning are not a team that will give you room for mistakes, especially in a do-or-die playoff series. 

The Maple Leafs need to commit to a team-defense mentality from Game 1 all the way to Game 7 should it be required. They’ve done a good job of maintaining this for much of the season, and it can’t change now. If they were to get the monkey off of their backs and actually carve out a decent playoff run this season, the first round will likely be the hardest leg of the journey, so they’ll need to bring everything that they have over the next two weeks. 

Maple Leafs Can’t Take Lightning Lightly Despite Setbacks 

The Lightning shelled out five draft picks to the Nashville Predators for forward Tanner Jeannot at the deadline, someone who surely would’ve been a pain to play against in the playoffs, which is on brand for the Bolts. Jeannot tallied only one goal and four points after the deadline, and now looks like he’ll miss most of the first round after suffering an injury against the New York Islanders on April 6. The team as a whole has struggled since the deadline too, going 8-9-1 in 18 games. That being said, the Maple Leafs can’t take them any less lightly. 

You May Also Like

This is a team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups and came up just short of three in a row last season. The Lightning are not immortal, but they know what it takes to get it done in the postseason more than just about any team in the league, so the Maple Leafs will have their work cut out for them this season. If they meet the three expectations I listed above and give a 100 percent effort in each game, I do believe they’re good enough to beat Tampa Bay this season. But, whether or not they live up to the hype will once again remain to be seen.