Consistency Is Key for Maple Leafs

Things looked a little bit bleak for the Toronto Maple Leafs after Game 2. Nazem Kadri was suspended, Leo Komarov was hurt and most of the players who were actually playing hadn’t made an impact. Toronto’s penalty kill wasn’t killing and the Maple Leafs were giving up scoring chance after scoring chance at even strength.

But with a Game 3 win and Game 4 also in Toronto, the Maple Leafs are back in the series. That being said, there are areas where the Leafs will need to be consistent moving forward.

The Penalty Kill

The Leafs had a pretty solid penalty kill in the regular season, but Boston’s power play destroyed the Leafs in Games 1 and 2. The Bruins’ power play, ranked fourth in the NHL in the regular season, was 5/10 in the first two games and was the main factor why Boston was able to dominate.

While avoiding penalties is the better option, if they are penalized, the Leafs desperately need to tighten up the penalty kill. We saw how many chances the Bruins had in the dying minutes of Game 3 when goaltender Tuukka Rask was pulled and, truth be told, Toronto has yet to figure out how to play when down a man in this series.

A lot of the B’s power-play chances came very close to the net. Their passes are getting through though they never should and Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev need to be better. Hainsey, who has been great on the penalty kill, may be exhausted from how much time he’s spent on the penalty kill, but he needs to be harder on the puck. Zaitsev on the other hand…

Zaitsev Must Contribute

Zaitsev has played some of the most uninspired hockey of any player on the Leafs throughout parts of this season. He’s paid as a top-four defenseman but hasn’t stood out in any way, unless it’s for losing puck battles in his own zone. Last season, he made up for his weak play by contributing offensively, but now that he’s not doing that, his lack of defensive ability is more visible.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Nikita Zaitsev has been brutal on the penalty kill in the two playoff games thus far. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

We’ve seen what Zaitsev is able to do in terms of great passing and contributing offensively, but for the majority of the season, he hasn’t done it. He’s not physical, he’s not particularly quick and he loses battles all over the ice. Last season, despite his troubles, he showed a lot of promise, but aside from a good start to the season, he hasn’t contributed this season.

Plekanec Needs a Repeat of Game 3

When an organization spends on a player at the deadline, it doesn’t look good when that player gets benched. It reflects badly on the general manager and the trade. But, many were calling for it with how Tomas Plekanec has played since coming to Toronto, except for in Game 3.

In Plekanec’s defence, it can’t be easy leaving a team you’ve played for your whole career and it takes time to adjust. Twitter joked about him being a saboteur, sent from the Montreal Canadiens to weigh down the Leafs and, as ludicrous as it is, it almost seemed true.

Tomas Plekanec, Toronto Maple Leafs
Tomas Plekanec hasn’t been able to adjust since coming to Toronto. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Moving Plekanec up to the second line had fans pulling their hair out but he rose to the task. He wasn’t excellent, but he was solid enough playing with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner. Plekanec needs to play with purpose like he did in Game 3 to keep himself and the second line effective in Game 4.

Consistent Goaltending

Since coming to Toronto, Frederik Andersen has given the Maple Leafs more goaltending stability than they’ve had in the past decade. He was the team’s MVP for the better part of the season, but he’s been shaky this series and that can’t be disputed.

Andersen got virtually no help in the first two games and most of the goals this series couldn’t be classified as bad ones. But 8 goals on 45 shots to open a series can’t happen. Three goals on five shots to open a game can’t happen.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Frederik Andersen was stellar in the regular season but needs to find his game in this series. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

It looked like Game 3 was going to be a repeat after allowing two weak goals, but Andersen stole the show in the third period. Going into the series, everyone knew Andersen would need to be the game-stealing, would-be Vezina candidate that we saw midway through the season. It’s unfair to expect him to steal the series, but he’s going to need to play a significant role.

The Best Players Need to Be the Best Players

Throughout the course of the series, very few forwards have really been consistently working like they can. Zach Hyman and Marner have been great but it really seems like there are a lot of forwards waiting for someone else to do something. William Nylander has been invisible thus far and hasn’t driven much offence. Even Auston Matthews wasn’t able to create quality chances in the first two games.

On defence, Morgan Rielly was excellent in Game 3 but he needs to find the same consistency going forward. He was skating, threw big hits on David Pastrnak and it was one of the best games he’s played with the Leafs. If the team has a chance of getting back into the series, Matthews, Nylander and Rielly can’t just be okay—they’ll need to be difference-makers. They can’t rely on secondary scoring or the physicality of Roman Polak, the stars need to do it themselves and the team as a whole needs to find consistency.