For John Tavares‘ Toronto Maple Leafs to find success throughout 2021-22, they have to start treating every single contest as though they each matter. This is a franchise that went from setting a points percentage record last season to witnessing their 3-1 series lead whither away in the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A missed opportunity to push through the postseason, which could have gone in a completely different direction had their level of focus aligned. While it’s fair to assume that a variety of lessons should have been learned as a result, the most glaring one has to be that they simply can’t afford to let their intensity dwindle. Especially if they expect to win when it matters most.
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It’s not as though any given game will mean more towards Toronto’s collective record. Yet, with that in mind, some dates certainly stand out above the rest when perusing their 2021-22 schedule. For the club that dominated last season’s North Division, they’ll now face a whole new set of challenges with the entire league back to being in their way. Setting the tone in their hometown on each of these seven occasions will prove pivotal for the storyline that follows.
Oct. 13 vs. Montreal Canadians
Opening night of any season matters, for a variety of reasons. It’s a fresh start for every organization, as each hopes to kick things off with a celebration. Some will start a winning streak, while others are forced to battle back up from the bottom of the standings. Sure, the 81 games that follow provide ample time for either trend to change, but there are undeniable advantages to gaining control early on.
It’s no secret that the Montreal Canadiens are by far Toronto’s biggest all-time rival. As evidenced by and throughout the 757 regular season games that have already occurred between the two. With the Canadiens owning the head-to-head edge at the moment, the Maple Leafs have some work to do if they hope to balance out their side of that record.
If that wasn’t enough motivation for a Maple Leafs roster that has failed to meet expectations in recent years, getting to face-off against a Canadiens lineup that recently ruined their postseason plans certainly should be.
“Our guys were devastated after the game,” the Toronto coach said. “So I chose not to speak to the group after.”
The atmosphere surrounding Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 13 will undoubtedly include a mix of nerves, anticipation, and revenge. It’s beyond just starting their season strong. After the Canadiens so easily dismantled all that the Maple Leafs had built up, this game could either prove to set the foundation for a new narrative or further that very demolition.
Nov. 4 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite these clubs landing at different ends of success of late, the Maple Leafs’ build includes a lot of similarities to the approach deployed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. While both lineups fixate on skill, the latter has simply extracted much more out of theirs in recent seasons. So much so that it earned them back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Returning to the same division means they’ll have to reacquaint quickly and prepare to meet often. Yet, Toronto has more to prove, whereas whatever Tampa Bay does next is a bonus for their franchise. The Maple Leafs have struggled to find the results that many presumed would come easy to their roster, while the Lightning elevated into a league of their own.
The pressure already tilts to the north in this scenario. Not only does Toronto need to capitalize on divisional success to secure a playoff berth, but bettering the reigning champions along the way becomes an obvious measuring stick they have to take seriously.
Dec. 1 vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche has become one of the most potent and feared franchises throughout the league. They are speedy, skillful, and strong. A combination that many expect will pay off sooner rather than later. In fact, they are already being referred to as early favourites to capture the 2022 Stanley Cup.
In short, if Toronto expects to reach a peak, they’ll need to bypass powerhouse teams like Colorado along the way. This is the first of only two meetings between these clubs throughout 2021-22, with both hosting the other once.
Not only do the Maple Leafs owe it to their home crowd to force their way into the same stratosphere as the Avalanche, but this is also their time to dull the shine off of one of the league’s best. Meanwhile, effectively putting Colorado’s ego in check would reverse the scare tactics between the two and that could work to Toronto’s advantage if they meet in the Final.
Jan. 3 vs. Carolina Hurricans
Although scheduled as the second meeting between the Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes through 2021-22, Jan. 3 will be the first time Frederik Andersen is back in Toronto since his offseason departure. Despite it feeling like the end of a relationship that had simply run its course, with no bad blood boiling over through the process, you have to imagine there is more to play for in this one.
First and foremost, emotions will be running high on both sides. Once the tributes of gratitude have concluded, the Maple Leafs will have to shift their focus to treating Andersen like the enemy he’s now become. Meanwhile, he’ll want to put on a show for his former fanbase to further the skeptical perception that Kyle Dubas made a mistake in letting him walk.
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Not to be forgotten is the fact that Petr Mrázek will be looking to write a story of his own throughout any action he sees against his former teammates. After what appeared like a straightforward goalie swap, with each free agent signing in the other’s previous city, Mrázek and Andersen both have something to prove to the organizations that chose to pay someone else instead.
Jan. 5 vs. Edmonton Oilers
Heading into the offseason, it was clear that Dubas simply couldn’t afford to spend an abundance. As such, it made sense to see Zach Hyman hit the market in search of what he was looking for and the Edmonton Oilers ultimately offered him just that. Less about needing to move on from the other, this seemed strictly financial. Edmonton will now benefit from the unparalleled passion and work ethic that Hyman developed in Toronto.
Although it will be a nice sight for supporters to witness Hyman back in the city that helped craft his career, no one will be cheering him on come puck drop. Even former teammates he once helped highlight, who will be looking to show the world they can accomplish more without him. Meanwhile, playing alongside the game’s best in Connor McDavid, Hyman will set out to prove his value in uplifting those around him to heights Toronto never helped him reach.
Despite the talent littered throughout each lineup, neither has made any meaningful noise in this league since their respective stars arrived. With the window to win closing for both organizations, as well as northern pride on the line, you can count on the NHL’s elite being wide awake for this one.
Feb. 24 vs. Minnesota Wild
In any other year, a mid-season meeting with the Minnesota Wild might not seem like one worth rearranging your schedule to catch. However, when it’s Toronto’s first game back after a lengthy Olympic break, there are likely to be some added elements that will ensure this one brings forth a little more than usual.
A number of Maple Leafs will be chosen to represent their respective nation at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Many getting to experience a level of pride not yet reached through their professional careers. As such, some may return looking to maintain the momentum gained from a podium finish, while others will hope North American ice helps them rid of any losing streaks encountered overseas.
Not to be understated is the fact that the Maple Leafs will essentially disband for an entire month. Regardless of any success that their individual players achieve throughout that span, the club’s ability to regain cohesion will be the organization’s priority. As the NHL resumes play, the Maple Leafs will be proceeding through the latter half of their season. Just in time for the standings to start taking shape.
April 29 vs. Boston Bruins
Any match-up between two of the Original Six inevitably means a little more to both. But when the Boston Bruins are in town, it prompts a visceral reaction throughout Toronto. Although they’ve had nearly 100 years to build upon their rivalry, the hatred that’s been brewing between these organizations has reached new heights in recent seasons.
Still can’t wrap your head around the Maple Leafs’ most recent debacle at the hands of the Canadiens? Then you haven’t been paying attention for long enough. It was Boston who fired up Toronto’s freight train of First Round failures. Dating back to 2012-13, the Maple Leafs haven’t broken into the Second Round since with the Bruins blocking them that access three times during that span.
If that wasn’t enough, April 29 marks the conclusion of Toronto’s season. Regardless of who they face to cap off any campaign, closing things out with a win at home is always the preferred plan.
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That this will allow Toronto the chance to shake off any residual kryptonite that Boston may still expect to leverage at year’s end should translate into an elevated performance. Beyond the Maple Leafs hoping to have already secured a postseason position by that point, they’ll also be looking to gain as much momentum as possible heading into the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Especially against a foe that could end up being in their way, yet again.