The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the playoffs. Reading that sentence is a bit surreal because many pundits and fans believed that the team was destined for a bottom five finish and high draft pick.
Instead, the Leafs wrote their own script, which saw Auston Matthews score 40, William Nylander and Mitch Marner both having over 60 point rookie seasons and Frederik Andersen putting the team on his back with often stellar goaltending. It was a fun year that saw the development of the team’s young core.
Their journey saw them gain valuable regular season experience and they will now dive right into the deep end against the Washington Capitals, the best team in the NHL in their first-round playoff series.
Baptism by Fire
This Leafs team doesn’t have the luxury of an easy first round matchup. They had the potential to play division rival Ottawa, but by losing their last home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Leafs didn’t secure the necessary point total they needed.
They fell into the second wildcard spot and will now face the Capitals, a squad that is coming off a President’s trophy as the team with the best regular-season record. It’s a daunting task for any team to go up against a juggernaut, but anything can happen over the course of a seven-game series.
If you’re the Leafs in this scenario, there’s only one route to go. They need to come out flying and play without any hesitation or intimidation. There are a few keys to the series. The Leafs young guns will need to perform like they did in the regular season.
That means Matthews, Marner and Nylander will need to be at their absolute best. It’s also a call to the veteran players such as Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. All four of them were present the last time the Leafs made the playoffs in 2013.
Add in the addition of Brian Boyle, who has over 100 games of postseason experience, and the veterans on the Leafs will be more relied upon than ever. They’ve been to the NHL playoffs before. They know what it takes to win a battle of attrition against a great team.
The Leafs will also heavily rely on the experience of the man behind the bench. Mike Babcock is a coach who’s won everything there is to win in the NHL. He knows what it’s like to take a team deep into the playoffs. All week long he’s been preparing his roster for exactly what playoff hockey has in store.
Whatever happens next, one of the most improbable turnarounds in Leafs history
2016-17 – 40-27-15 – 95 pts
2015-16 – 29-42-11 – 69 pts
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 10, 2017
The Leafs are playing with house money. The pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Capitals, a team that as been incapable of making it past the second round. It’s going to be an exciting series that should go longer than many people think it will.
Ever since Brendan Shanahan took over the job of running the Maple Leafs, he’s kept a close eye on potential players who were overseas in Russia. The first acquisition was Nikita Soshnikov, the tenacious forward who has spent a good deal of time on the fourth line this year.
The second and most important thus far has been Nikita Zaitsev, the smooth-skating Russian defenseman. Zaitsev was a valuable signing for a number of reasons. Before making the jump to Toronto this year, he already had seven years of KHL experience under his belt. He’s basically a rookie in name alone.
He’s also become one of the most reliable defenders on the team and is able to play a variety of styles, from the tough and physical to the skilled. That makes his loss on the blueline for game one against the Capitals hurt even more.
Zaitsev was injured in the final regular-season game which turned out to be a loss to the Blue Jackets. He took a big hit and was noticeably wobbly upon getting back up. It’s being called an upper-body injury by the Leafs.
Babcock is optimistic that Zaitsev will be back in the lineup for the second games of the series, but nothing is certain. The team has tabbed Martin Marincin as the defenseman to step into the void left by Zaitsev. He was working on a pair with Connor Carrick this week at Leafs practice. Marincin hasn’t seen game action in a very long time and will need to shake off the rust in a hurry.
If Zaitsev is out long-term, it’s a huge blow to the Leafs already shaky defense. Other key players like Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner will need to step up and take on even more responsibility.
Nothing ever goes according to plan in the postseason. The team that is able to adapt on the fly is usually the one who has the most success. It may be a cliche, but anything can happen. Just sit back and enjoy the playoffs.