This season was supposed to be different for the Toronto Maple Leafs, right? This was supposed to be the year they’d finally conquer their first-round demons and settle in for a long playoff run, right?
At least so far in 2022-23, as good of a season as the Maple Leafs have had to this point, they haven’t proven they’re any different than the last couple of years. At least not yet.
Saturday night’s game in Montreal proved that the Maple Leafs are still dealing with the same issues they’ve struggled with in the core-four era. Saturday was supposed to be different. But it was just the same old song and dance.
Maple Leafs Continue to Play Down to Competition
The Canadiens are not only in clear Connor Bedard tank mode, they were without their best offensive weapon in Cole Caufield. It was announced Saturday that he would miss the rest of the season due to a lingering shoulder injury.
If there was any time that the Maple Leafs should have their way with the Canadiens, it was Saturday night at the Bell Centre. Everything pointed to the Maple Leafs having a good night. The game even started that way too.
Just 53 seconds into the game, Mark Giordano made it 1-0. Then Calle Jarnkrok made it 2-0 with 2:30 left in the first. When the dust settled on the first period, the shots were 15-4 Maple Leafs. They dominated as they should against a team they should beat given their current situations.
But then for the remaining 40 minutes, reality struck the Maple Leafs.
Maple Leafs’ killer Josh Anderson gets the Canadiens on the board less than two minutes into the second. But then Rafael Harvey-Pinard tied the game at 13:35. Michael Pezzetta and Alex Belzile, who were playing essentially on the fourth line in an 11-7 setup, setup the goal. Shots in the second were 18-8 Canadiens.
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NHL teams will push back no matter who we’re talking about. But how does this keep happening to the Maple Leafs over and over and over again?
It’s simple really. They’re no different than before.
The third period saw no goals scored. But then in overtime, Rem Pitlick scored the winner. The Maple Leafs got a point, which put them to third place in the NHL standings. However they shouldn’t lose to this version of the Canadiens. They keep playing down to their competition for some confounding reason.
Our Peter Baracchini did a nice job of outlining the Maple Leafs’ struggles with playing down to their competition.
We’ve Seen This Movie Before
Doesn’t it feel like this season has played out almost exactly like previous seasons of late for the Maple Leafs? They’ve been good in the regular season. They’ve had inexplicable moments of letting the foot off the gas at the wrong times. They respond with great games against better competition. Then at playoff time, they play well in spots only to fall short of winning four games.
The 2022-23 season has a lot of the same feels as the last couple of seasons. With 64 points, the Maple Leafs are third in the NHL and on cruise control for a playoff spot. Those 64 points would lead the Western Conference.
However did you know that the Maple Leafs of last season on Jan 22 had a higher points percentage than they do now? Their 28-11-8 has them at .681 this season. Last season their 25-10-3 record had them at .697. Both are great records but last season was slightly better.
It shows that there are other concerns the Maple Leafs are dealing with outside of playing down to their competition. Have you seen their lack of OT success this season?
On one hand, getting to overtime does earn the Maple Leafs at least one point with a chance at a second point. On the other hand, having eight overtime losses is a valid concern. It’s especially concerning when the Maple Leafs have a clear offensive advantage in 3-on-3 but can’t get the job done.
The reality of the situation is the Maple Leafs have cost themselves valuable points by losing to teams they should beat and then not finishing in overtime as expected. The race between them and the Bruins would be much closer. But instead, they have to ask what needs to change in order to alleviate these concerns?
The overtime thing goes back to the playoffs too. The Canadiens’ series of two seasons ago. Game 6 of the Lightning series last season. This isn’t a new issue for the Maple Leafs. They have to figure out how to score the next goal in sudden death. Games will be tighter. It will come down to their ability to play well in pressure moments, something they have yet to overcome.
They Have Time Still
The good news in all of this is they have time to rectify these things. Whether it’s finding a killer instinct or being more clutch in key moments, the Maple Leafs will have the rest of the regular season to find answers to these concerns before the test begins.
These Maple Leafs have too much talent to have these questions still lingering over them. They know what it will take to win. They’ve experienced the disappointment of playoff failure on multiple occasions. Another failed playoff performance could signal they’re simply not capable of doing what’s necessary to win. That would prompt major changes.
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For now, when the game is 2-0 Maple Leafs, they need to step on the gas and find a way to make it 4-0. When they’re in overtime, they need to control the pace and let their stars win the game.
The Maple Leafs do control their own destiny on these controllable things. Maybe they need to think the Canadiens are the Jets every night. Whatever it takes.
Beat the teams you are supposed to beat. Let your stars lead the way in sudden death moments. Figure those things out and maybe, just maybe these Maple Leafs can be different than year’s past.
As of right now though, they are no different than what we’re used to seeing.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.