Maple Leafs Biggest Test Yet, the Last-Place Ducks

The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing incredible hockey. They’ve dominated some games while battling through injuries and a demanding schedule. But, a significant threat waddles into Scotiabank Arena, the last place, woeful, down-right terrible Anaheim Ducks. Why is this the biggest test? Toronto lost to this team earlier this season, and they also lost to the almost as bad Arizona Coyotes. The test this team needs to pass is playing just as well against the weak teams as they do against the strongest clubs.

Mitch Marner John Tavares Timothy Liljegren Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Timothy Liljegren celebrate a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Maple Leafs played Anaheim on October 30, the day before Halloween, and it was a scary time in Leaf Nation. Toronto allowed Anaheim, a very young, rebuilding team, to stick around and gave up two goals in the third period to watch the “W” disappear in overtime when Trevor Zegras put up a highlight goal. That loss put Toronto on a four-game losing streak, the calls for Sheldon Keefe’s firing were loud, and there were a lot of doubts that this team could be a contender in 2022-23.

Maple Leafs Turnaround Since California

Fast forward 19 games, Toronto has earned a point in all but one of those contests, including wins over the NHL’s best in the Boston Bruins and second best, the New Jersey Devils. The Buds are riding a three-game winning streak; two of those games were shutouts, Mitch Marner is on a 22-game point streak, and William Nylander was named the NHL’s third star of the week. The Maple Leafs that last played the Ducks are a shadow of what this current team is. However – danger looms.

Related: Maple Leafs Turnaround Sparked By John Tortorella

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Toronto has a trend that goes back further than last season, but for the short memories among us, we will start in March of 2022. Then, the Maple Leafs had a legitimate shot at winning the Atlantic title. They had a reasonably easy month leaving the door wide open to catch the Florida Panthers and put some distance on them. But they lost two games to the dreadful Buffalo Sabres, dropped another one to Arizona, and coughed up an easy win against the Montreal Canadiens. That’s eight easy points down the drain, and the Panthers won the division by seven points. That led to Toronto losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, while Florida beat the Washington Capitals.

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This trend carried over to October, the Maple Leafs lost to bottom-feeder teams with Arizona, Anaheim, San Jose and Montreal but beat top-end teams like Dallas, Winnipeg and Los Angeles. My colleague, Peter Baracchini talked about the up and down October with the article: Maple Leafs Need to Stop Playing Down to Competition.

Maple Leafs Ripe for a Loss

Most nights, Toronto has done a much better job of playing a consistent game, no matter who the competition is. But, coming off of two shutouts, the Maple Leafs looked a little sloppy against the Calgary Flames on December 10. Keefe saw some bad habits reappear, “the reality is that it is going to creep back in at times. As we talked about, the hope is that when you have a game like that, you snap out of it quickly and get right back to what has allowed us to succeed… There are still areas of our game there where we thought we gave up control of play and made life harder on ourselves than it needed to be. We hadn’t been doing that here for quite some time.”

Trevor Zegras Anaheim Ducks
Trevor Zegras and the Anaheim Ducks are still dangerous (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Just how well Keefe’s message resonated will be determined at puck drop. The Ducks are a team that many will take lightly this season, but they do have the skill to steal a few. Unfortunately, Toronto is ripe for the picking.