Hockey’s a funny sport.
It was less than a week ago that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the laughing stock of the National Hockey League following their embarrassing loss to Zamboni driver turned goaltender David Ayres and the Carolina Hurricanes. Beyond the pure humiliation of losing to an emergency backup goaltender, the 6-3 loss raised multiple questions about the team’s construction and character. Are they mature enough to win? Should they make a big move to shake things up this offseason?
But just when you thought the Maple Leafs were about to fold under the pressure, they came out with an impressive performance in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, ending the Lightning’s 11-game home winning streak. And then, in the most important game of the season, Toronto toppled the Florida Panthers 5-3 on Thursday night in dominating fashion, controlling 68 percent of the expected goals at five-on-five.
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It was the kind of game that could truly create some momentum and perhaps kick-start a nice little run. And for a team that’s been as inconsistent as the Maple Leafs, a sustained stretch of dominance would do wonders for both their confidence and playoff chances.
Getting a Leg Up on the Panthers
Speaking of playoffs, Thursday’s win alone produced a pretty substantial swing: according to Money Puck, the Maple Leafs got a 10-point boost and are now have a 78 percent chance to make the postseason, while the Panthers tumbled from 41 percent down to 30. Meanwhile, if the Panthers had won in regulation, the two teams would have essentially been on even footing to make the playoffs.
Toronto will now enjoy a relatively soft schedule over the next week with games against the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks. Outside of the Canucks, those are three of the five worst teams in the NHL – this is a good opportunity for the Maple Leafs to rack up some points and perhaps increase their lead over those pesky Panthers.
The Atlantic Division foes will meet once more this season towards the end of March. Depending on how the next three weeks go, that game could be even more meaningful than this last meeting.
Overcoming Injury and Adversity
Not only did the Maple Leafs win the most important game of the season in dominating fashion, but they did so with what could only be described as a decimated blue line. With Muzzin’s hand injury against the Lightning, Toronto was without its two best defencemen in Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, plus another minute-muncher in Cody Ceci. Tyson Barrie, who was nearly dealt on Monday’s trade deadline, instantly became the team’s de facto No. 1 defenceman.
“I probably have more games than the rest of them combined,” Barrie said ahead of Thursday night’s affair in Florida. And the 28-year-old was correct. (from ‘Tyson Barrie suddenly feels like Maple Leafs’ old man,’ National Post, 02/27/2020)
Led by Barrie and his 25:21 of ice time, it was a true by-committee effort as four of Toronto’s defencemen (Barrie, Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, Martin Marincin) played at least 20 minutes, while 19-year-old Rasmus Sandin excelled in over 16 minutes of work.
With Muzzin now expected out for four weeks and Rielly set to return around mid-to-late March, the Maple Leafs will have to try to survive in the short term without their leaders on the back end.
While Kasperi Kapanen is known more for his speed and offensive touch, he’s been building a reputation as a bit of an enforcer in recent weeks. After laying a heavy hit on MacKenzie Weegar, Kapanen dropped the gloves with the Panthers defenceman to close out the first period. It marked the second time in the last four outings that the 23-year-old scored a goal and fought in the same game.
After a stretch of 18 games with just one goal, the speedy winger has regained some of his offensive punch, notching two goals and two assists (along with those two fights) in his last four games.
Could it be that the increased physical involvement has sparked something in the young Finn? Perhaps. Alternatively, it could be that he caught wind of the rumours that he might be moved at the deadline and wanted to prove his indispensable value to the team. And, hey, for a Toronto squad that’s been criticized for its lack of physicality, you could see why a fight or two could be deemed valuable.
Regardless of the reason for Kapanen’s elevated play, his combination of skill and grit could be an X-factor for the Maple Leafs through these final 17 games and potentially into the playoffs.
And after the biggest win of the season, those playoffs are looking well within reach.
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Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.