Maple Leafs’ Biggest Opponent In the Playoffs Will Be Themselves

The Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up one of their most dominant stretches of the season on Tuesday night. After a period where their goaltending situation essentially dissolved in thin air and they dropped crucial points to lottery teams like the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Arizona Coyotes, the Maple Leafs went on a bit of a tear and beat each of their top Atlantic Division competition in convincing fashion.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Marner, Matthews & Campbell

Of course, right when we all started to think maybe this Maple Leafs team had something different, they blew Tuesday night’s game in typical Leafs fashion to remind us that not everything has changed. Granted, from a big picture standpoint, I’m sure Maple Leafs fans would have been more than happy with the idea of taking three out of four points in a back-to-back on the road against the Florida teams, and that’s what they did.

Sheldon Keefe Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To me, these past two weeks have proven something that everybody already knew about this Maple Leafs team. They have the raw skill, the veterans, and dare I say, even the grit to beat just about any team in this league. And if they didn’t have the dark cloud of six straight early playoff exits hovering over them, I don’t think anybody would be worried about how this team stacks up against others. But that dark cloud exists for a reason, and that reason is this; their biggest enemy is themselves.

Maple Leafs’ Loss to Florida Doesn’t Define Recent Success

Let’s just get this out of the way now because I know the timing of this article is poor, given how Tuesday night’s game against Florida went. I want to go on record and say that I’m usually their harshest critic when it comes to blown leads. And after blowing a 5-1 lead to the Panthers, you’d think that game would be no different. However, I believe there were a couple of decisions that led to the way this game played out.

You may also like:

First of all, I think head coach Sheldon Keefe’s decision to sit Ilya Lyubushkin in favour of Justin Holl upon Jake Muzzin‘s return to the lineup was foolish at best. But I also don’t think it would have been as bad if he didn’t pair Muzzin and Holl together, considering that pairing has been consistently bad for them all season. But either way, I would have found a way to leave Lyubushkin in the lineup, as his physicality and defensive awareness would have been much appreciated against a team like the Panthers, who are notoriously physical in front of the net.

On top of that, I think Tuesday’s game had a real slippery slope effect to it. To me, the turning point of the game was Radko Gudas’ shorthanded goal. Erik Kallgren was having a decent game to that point, but there’s simply no way to justify allowing a shorthanded slapshot goal from the point to a defenseman who had two goals in 68 games to that point.

Then, after Kallgren took a shot up high and had to leave the game, Jack Campbell came in, and while he made some big saves, it wasn’t enough to propel the Maple Leafs to a win. Campbell had just started the night before against the Tampa Bay Lightning, so I’m not pinning too much of the blame on him, either.

Overall, I think it was one of those games where the Maple Leafs probably didn’t deserve the win as much as it may have seemed. The Panthers played them hard all night, and the Maple Leafs took advantage of some shaky goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky early in the second period to give them the early lead. Once Florida started clawing back, the momentum quickly shifted back their way. You obviously never want to be having the conversation of “oh, they blew another lead,” and it certainly doesn’t help the narrative, but I’m not as bitter over the way they lost as I normally would be.

Maple Leafs Proving They Can Hang With the Top Dogs

It feels like the Maple Leafs have always struggled against inferior teams and thrived against teams better than them. And this year, the narrative truly couldn’t be any more accurate. In games against the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators this season, the Maple Leafs have a record of 4-5-0. In games against the Lightning, Panthers, and Boston Bruins, they have a record of 5-1-1.

During that stretch in late February/early March, when the Maple Leafs were losing these games to Montreal and Buffalo, there was a growing concern that if they couldn’t even handle the weakest teams in their division, then there was no way they’d survive in a seven-game series against the Lightning or the Panthers. But this recent stretch of games has proven to be the opposite. Auston Matthews has 18 points in nine games since returning from his suspension and just tied the franchise record for goals in a single season with 54. Mitch Marner has 23 points in those nine games. John Tavares and William Nylander each have nine points in their last nine, and even Morgan Rielly has 12 points in his last nine.

And perhaps the biggest development for the Maple Leafs recently is that they’ve finally been getting competent goaltending. The bar was so low at one point that many Leafs fans were ready to give Kallgren the reigns for the foreseeable future despite having no prior NHL experience. But ever since Mrazek went down with another groin injury, the Campbell/Kallgren tandem are 5-0-1 and have only allowed more than three goals in two of the six starts. I know this doesn’t seem overly impressive, but when you consider where their goaltending was shortly before that, it’s an improvement no matter how you look at it.

Maple Leafs in Control of Their Own Destiny

I feel like I say this every year, but when this team is on their game, I truly believe they have what it takes to make a deep run in the playoffs. And when I say “have what it takes,” I mean roster-wise. Their offense obviously isn’t a concern, their defensive depth is the best I’ve seen for a Maple Leafs team in my lifetime, and Campbell has looked much calmer and composed since his return, Tuesday night aside. The decision to run with Campbell for the rest of this season instead of trading for a goaltender at the deadline is a risky one, but one that could just as equally pay off for them.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner carrying their play into the playoffs would be a massive first step to getting out of the first round. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

To be fair, I thought this team had what it took to go all the way last season too. But I’m sure Matthews and Marner going off the map offensively wasn’t in the Maple Leafs’ game plans for the playoffs last season. The point is, they’ve proven with their recent winning streak that if they want to get out of the first round, they can. But taking games off or even periods off is simply not going to fly, especially not when the Atlantic Division race is as tight as it is.

You May Also Like

The Maple Leafs have 12 games left this season, and three of them will be against their Atlantic Division competition. They will need to bring the best versions of themselves every single game, night in and night out, for the rest of the season. The last thing they want is to limp into the playoffs against one of Tampa Bay, Boston, or Florida, so it’s important to start building this momentum now and not letting up when the going gets tough.