The Stanley Cup Playoffs are around the corner, and if the Toronto Maple Leafs want to win a first-round series for the first time in almost two decades, it’s going to take a collective effort. Season after season, certain variables seem to facilitate a disheartening collapse, and their loyal fan base is hopeful this season is when they will finally get over the hump. While the team continues to set franchise records in the regular season, everyone knows they will be judged on postseason success once it’s all said and done. Here’s a look at three Maple Leafs who need to step up during the playoffs to win that first-round series.
With Petr Mrazek on the shelf with a lower-body injury, Jack Campbell will be the starting netminder on opening night of the NHL’s second season. The 30-year-old veteran has a ton riding on this season as it’s a contract year, and he’s set to hit the open market this summer. A long playoff run where he can return to his All-Star ways could go a long way in contract negotiations for his next deal.
Campbell sits with a 29-9-4 record heading into Tuesday’s action, and more importantly, he has recently found his game after a horrendous stretch to kick off the 2022 calendar year. He’s managed six wins in his last seven appearances and is starting to look like his old self, staying quiet in net, controlling rebounds and making the 10-bell saves when his teammates need it most.
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While the regular season is one thing, the playoffs are a different beast, and the Maple Leafs will only go as far as Campbell can take them. Their offence is potent enough that he won’t have to limit the opposition to two goals or less, but he will have to keep the team in games to give them a chance to win. We all saw last postseason what he’s capable of by posting a 1.81 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage, and his loving teammates and Leafs Nation are hopeful he has an encore performance up his sleeve.
When Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas signed David Kampf last summer, he was brought in to play a shut-down role down the middle in the bottom six. That will still be the case in the postseason or else Toronto could be in trouble.
Kampf has had a solid season in his first year in Toronto, recording 24 points in 76 games. The 27-year-old pivot plays a ton of time on the penalty kill and is a big reason the Maple Leafs have one of the best short-handed units in the league. This must continue in the postseason as special teams are especially critical when chances are fewer and capitalization is king. With only nine games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience under his belt, the jury is still out on expectations.
While he’s not the biggest pest on the ice, Kampf must play an in-your-face game where he shadows the other team’s best players to keep them off their game. The Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins are stacked with talent down the middle, so it will be important for Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe to be able to rely on his third line to play that shutdown role Toronto has desperately needed for years.
Let’s hope his best buddy Ondrej Kase will be healthy enough for the postseason for them to once again wreak havoc on other teams as they did earlier in the season.
Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner
I said three, but I couldn’t separate these two, so four it is. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are the Maple Leafs’ best players, and as the old story goes, your best players must be your best players when the games matter most. These two have enjoyed phenomenal seasons, shattering franchise records along the way. Regardless, postseason success is how they will be defined as players, and while their numbers aren’t as bad as many think, the dynamic duo needs to continue their dominant play when the stakes are higher.
Looking back on last postseason, there were times when Marner seemed to be tentative, and Matthews couldn’t find his scoring touch. The shifty winger finished with zero goals and four assists in seven games, while the superstar center tallied only one goal and five points. This with John Tavares on the sideline after a scary hit ended his postseason. Although Alexander Kerfoot and William Nylander stepped up, the same can’t be said for Matthews and Marner.
This season should be very different as both superstars have continued to develop their game; they’ve spent an entire season playing together on the team’s first line and have shown consistently they are capable of taking over games.
Leafs Nation should gear up for what could be a historic playoff run. The team has two of the NHL’s best players, along with a starting netminder who has once again found his game and a third-line center who knows exactly what his role is on the team. Get your popcorn ready, Toronto. If these four players can step up during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that parade route everyone jokes about after every transaction could become reality.