The NHL returns to action Wednesday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs open the 2019-20 season with a date against the rival Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena.
Pundits and fans will set their sights on the later stages of the season and where the club will be come game 82, but the team needs to focus on the here and now. In fact, John Tavares admitted as much in the media scrum on the eve of the NHL regular season. For now, the team needs to take the season game by game, as October represents a crucial month.
A win in October nets you the same two points as in March. Banking points early can be advantageous. With that in mind, let’s dive into why the Maple Leafs need to bear down early and approach October as if it was March.
Over their three-season run as a playoff team, the Maple Leafs still haven’t made Scotiabank Arena (in downtown Toronto) an overly difficult place to play for their opponent. In fact, they earned more points on the road (52) than they did at home (48) a season ago. If the team plans on being better at home this season, the month of October will put that to the test.
Of the 14 games they play in October, nine will take place on home ice. Four of the first five games are at home. In other words, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity to rack up points in the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena before November rolls around.
November not only includes nine of 14 games on the road, but also a lengthy six-game road trip that takes them to the midwestern United States and back. For good measure, the Maple Leafs also have a road-heavy schedule in December with 8 of 13 games away from home. December includes the annual Western Canada road trip – a trip that never comes easy, but this time does not contain a back-to-back.
If the team wants to establish that they won’t be messed with on home ice, it needs to begin Wednesday night against the Senators and carry through to the end of the month when they finish by hosting the Washington Capitals. They don’t get a home-heavy schedule again until the couple of weeks leading up to January’s All-Star break, so now is the time to take advantage of home ice while they can.
Quality of Opponents
Sure, the opening week isn’t exactly murderer’s row for the Maple Leafs as they take on the Senators followed by meetings with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens – none of which are considered a serious contender at this point. That said, they might want to rack up a trio of wins in that time as the October schedule gets exceedingly more difficult.
After a favorable schedule in the opening week, the Maple Leafs’ aspirations of being one of the best teams in the NHL will again be put to test. The second week of the season kicks off with a date against the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, followed by a battle with the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning from a season ago.
After a two-game stretch against the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild, the Maple Leafs play the Capitals twice, Boston Bruins twice and San Jose Sharks in a seven-game span. The Bruins and Sharks represent two of the final-four teams from a season ago while the Capitals, of course, won it all in 2018 and figure to compete heavily again this time around.
Add in a meeting at the Bell Centre in Montreal in that seven-game span and the Maple Leafs will have their hands full in the final two and a half weeks of October. Regardless of the standings or the opinion of anyone outside of the dressing room, a successful stretch to end the month would prove that they can compete with any team in the league, as per the expectations of themselves and those placed upon them.
Ah, the dreaded back-to-back scenario. As one of the youngest teams in the NHL, the Maple Leafs are in a better position to handle the grind of two games in as many nights, but they will have to do so three times in October alone. For what it’s worth, they also have three back-to-backs in November and December but just two in the remaining months.
Still, the Maple Leafs face a back-to-back situation as early as the first weekend of the season. They’ll travel to Ohio to take on the Blue Jackets on Friday night before heading home to meet the rival Canadiens on Saturday. This means we could see backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson as early as Friday’s matchup in Columbus.
Back-to-backs are never easy, however the opening-week scenario doesn’t appear to be the most difficult of the three. The third week of the season sees the Maple Leafs host the Wild on a Tuesday before heading to Washington to take on the Capitals on Wednesday. Less than a week later, the club will host the Blue Jackets on Monday and fly to Boston to battle the Bruins on Tuesday. That marks back-to-back weeks of back-to-back games. That’s the biggest brain-teaser I have for you, I promise.
The first leg of the back-to-backs in October appear to be must-win games. Two of them come against a Blue Jackets team expected to regress significantly after offseason departures while the Wild also figure to be a non-playoff club after falling short last season and with seemingly little to move forward with.
Meanwhile, the second legs of the back-to-backs come against the Canadiens, Capitals and Bruins – three full-blown postseason contenders. Those games are daunting to begin with, especially so considering the circumstances.
The Maple Leafs are again expected to qualify for the playoffs and anything short of doing damage in the postseason will be considered a major disappointment, especially considering the talent on board. However, before they can think of that, the team needs to buckle down out of the gate and prepare for what is already a crucial opening month to the 2019-20 season.