82 games are in the books. After a dominating season where they set a franchise record for wins and points, the real test begins for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The bitter taste of defeat still lingers after last season, which should’ve been a deep playoff run as well as five previous seasons of frustration. This season, the attitude and mentality surrounding this team appears to have changed as they are more determined as a collective group.
While the Maple Leafs have had their ups and downs, they showed they can be one of the best teams in the league. As great as this season has been, none of that matters except for the postseason. Their journey starts as they go head-to-head with the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champs, Tampa Bay Lightning. Here are five factors that will be crucial for the Maple Leafs to win and come out on top.
Using the Past as Motivation
We all remember seeing the image of both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner sitting in the locker room after their Game 7 defeat against the Montreal Canadiens. It was disheartening as you could see the emotion on their faces that they deserved better.
Fast forward to today, Matthews, Marner and company have a chance to use that defeat and their new found motivation this season to find success and power through the playoff woes. As much as we wanted to see success over the last five seasons, they aren’t the only team to take some time to figure things out. We’ve seen this with the Washington Capitals and Lightning who have had their fair share of woes before becoming Champs.
I’ve said many times, great teams use their past failures as motivation. The disappointment can be turned into something positive and this core has many years of upsetting finishes in the postseason.
“The scars that leaves behind is the extra motivation, a little extra fire that burns within to go out there and make a difference and have a different outcome,” Matthews said according to Larry Lage of AP News. “Everybody on the team, and everybody in this organization, is confident in one another and extremely motivated to change the narrative and have success come postseason time.”
Matthews added, “It’s about doing — not talking about it.”
After a dominant season, the time for the Maple Leafs to start acting on their words is now. They have the skillset, depth and mentality that makes a championship team. It’s easy to say something, it’s another thing to act on it and show that they mean business with their play. They showed it in the first 82 games. Can they do it again in the playoffs and finally exorcise their playoff demons?
If there’s any team to do it, it’s this one.
Secondary Scoring and Depth Shines
In the playoffs, you rely on the big names to carry the bulk of the offensive load. Both the Maple Leafs and Lightning’s top-six are very well evenly matched with a number of star-studded players. In the 2021 playoffs, the stars went cold for the Maple Leafs though they have produced throughout their career.
All four of the Maple Leafs top forwards have a point per game average over 0.70, except for Tavares at 0.62. It’s not great, but it’s still decent production seeing they haven’t gone past the first round. While that does need to change, the Maple Leafs have the depth to carry them to a series win. Wayne Simmonds was very adamant about the importance of depth in the postseason.
Giordano- Liljegren Pairing Could Be Key
The Maple Leafs defense are definitely going to be a key factor if they want to have any sort of success in this series. They’ve shored up their depth by bringing in Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin to a team that’s had some good balance with Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.
Everyone on defense is going to be playing a big part. Though their most consistent pairing since the trade deadline of Giordano and Liljegren will be relied on to provide both an impact defensively and offensively. The pairing is tied for the best five-on-five (min. 150 minutes) goals for percentage 62.50 and own the best high danger chances for percentage of 66.15.
Both Giordano and Liljegren have done a great job at creating opportunities while providing a steady shut down presence within their own zone. This is a pairing that can do it all as both players have the ability to bring a calming presence on the backend with their play as they’ve created some great chemistry. With the intensity increasing, both players have shown to play physical as Liljegren (39) and Giordano (29) are top-10 since the trade deadline in hits on the team.
Giordano was brought in because of his style of play and experience in the league. He’s definitely formed a great pairing with one of the Maple Leafs young defenseman that’s starting to turn heads.
Manage the Puck Better
There have been times this season where the Maple Leafs cracked under pressure and show poor puck management or decisions in terms of clearing out of their zone. As we’ve previously seen in the 8-1 thrashing, the Lightning definitely likes to put the pressure on to force a mistake and gain more time to generate scoring opportunities.
The amount of careless turnovers and failed clearing attempts ultimately costed them that game as there were at least a few goals that were a result of not being strong on the attempt, the Lightning convened on the loose puck to create a counter attack within their own zone and led to more offensive zone time. They were too relaxed and didn’t show any sort of aggressiveness defensively to try and battle to regain possession.
The Maple Leaf have shown to play strong defense and make strong clearing attempts when they need to. That aspect has to be cleaned up in the playoffs as one mistake could come back to hurt them. They have to be hard on the attempts, use their speed to gain possession in the neutral zone and maneuver when dealing with pressure. When the Maple Leafs settle things down and then attack quickly, that’s when they’re on their game.
Campbell Out Duels Vasilevskiy
Goaltender Jack Campbell outduelled Andrei Vasilevskiy, coming out on top in a 2-1 overtime win on Nov 4, making 24 saves. He once again came out on top over him in a 6-2 win on April 4. In both games, he posted a save percentage of .940 or better.
Now it’s clear that the Lightning have the advantage in goal with all the hardware and play that Vasilevskiy has shown over his career. He’s a two-time Cup champ, Vezina Trophy winner and Conn Smythe winner. He’s proven that he’s the best goaltender in the league. Though this season Vasilevskiy has shown at times that fatigue could be setting in.
Campbell is not Vasilevskiy, but he has shown this season that he can go up against one of the top goaltenders and be victorious. After some struggles and a rib-injury, he appears to be back in fine form like early on in the season. In his last four starts, he’s posted a SV% of .930 or better including a 2.59 goals against average and .915 SV% in April.
Campbell is going to be relied on heavily to try and do it again four more times. If he remains calm and focussed in the crease, he will be a big a reason that the Maple Leafs will be successful.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.