No matter the sport, athletes face pressure to perform well and exceed expectations, and when the postseason arrives, that’s when the real test begins.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are always under a microscope. As one of the most historic franchises in the NHL, expectations are extremely high. The Stanley Cup has been said to be the most difficult trophy to win in sports. If players and teams weren’t facing enough pressure as is, the stakes were just raised. With the addition of a new five game qualifying series, the 2020 Cup will be even more difficult to win.
There have been bright spots in the last few seasons, but the Maple Leafs need to take the next step and prove that they are ready to be a Cup contender. Here are the three Maple Leafs players who will face the most pressure during the playoffs.
It’s not fair to pin the Maple Leafs’ playoff losses on Andersen. He’s been arguably one of their best players to give them a chance of winning in the regular season and postseason. However, this season was Andersen’s worst statistically with the Maple Leafs. There were games when we saw the flashes of brilliance that made him the starter the Maple Leafs needed when they acquired him in 2016.
Andersen clearly wasn’t at his best, struggling to try and locate the puck and was letting in goals that he should have saved. You can probably attribute that to the poor defensive structure in front of him. There were many times where the defense turned the puck over and Andersen was caught off guard with the quick transition and shot on net.
With a poor defensive unit in front of him, even during the scrimmages during training camp, Andersen is facing a lot of pressure to be the last line of defense. A slight slip up could pave the way for backup Jack Campbell to take over in the crease. While it’s a small sample, Campbell has provided some consistency in net, posting a .915 save percentage (SV%) and 2.79 goals-against average in six games.
With the playoffs approaching, there’s no doubt that Andersen is going to have to be at the top of his game. Goaltenders are always scrutinized if things don’t go right. One bad game could cost their team the series. If there’s one positive to take, it’s that Andersen started to return to form before the season was paused, posting an SV% higher than .920 in his last three games. He’s shown that he can elevate his level of play during the postseason, making plays like this against Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak during the first round of the 2018 Playoffs.
Despite his inconsistencies this season, Andersen is the starter. Team defense was the focus during training camp. If they improve, Andersen’s job will be easier than having to constantly bail out his team and that will alleviate some of the pressure on him to carry the team.
Like Andersen, this is a season that could’ve gone better for Rielly. After a 72-point career year last season and being in the Norris Trophy conversation, Rielly is not only under pressure to provide that level of consistency, he’ll also be the one that everyone looks to for leadership.
Rielly has endured his share of pain with the blue and white. He was a cornerstone piece of the team’s rebuild and he’s also seen the dissatisfaction of losing in the playoffs to the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins twice. Rielly has been vocal about trying to get the Maple Leafs motivated to “prove people wrong” after another poor defensive season. Now, they’re going to need him more than ever to be a key player on their defense.
Rielly did have some good numbers this season. He had a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 51.65 and an Expected Goals percentage of 51.45 when he was on the ice. While he still did a great job driving the offense, he was far from being the player that he was last year. There were a lot of inconsistencies in the defensive zone and dealing with injuries played a major part. But now that he’s had more time off to heal and prepare for the start of the playoffs, we can expect a more rejuvenated and motivated Rielly.
With Rielly being 100 percent healthy, many are going to expect him to be at his best. As the current longest-serving Maple Leaf, he’s dealt with failure before. He will be the one that the team looks to for guidance, which will be an essential part of the Maple Leafs success. He’s the leader on the blue line and he’s taken it upon himself to try and motivate his teammates.
If the Maple Leafs are going to have any success in the playoffs, they need one of their best defensemen to rise up to the occasion and make an impact both on and off the ice. So far, Rielly means business.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would I put the Maple Leafs captain on this list?
It has nothing to do with Tavares’ play on the ice. He has been a game-breaker throughout his career, dominating the Ontario League, scoring a hat trick that led to a comeback against Team USA at the 2009 World Juniors and setting up one of the greatest Team Canada goals ever in their game against Russia in the semis that same year. He even single-handedly tied and won the game for the New York Islanders in double overtime of Game 6 against the Florida Panthers in the 2016 playoffs.
This is more of a psychological aspect. A hometown boy, who grew up idolizing the Maple Leafs and is now the captain of the team that he loved. This is every kid’s dream come true. But with that excitement, all eyes will be on him to try and find success where many before him have failed or have come up short.
The weight of the world is on Tavares’ shoulders. That’s to be expected when you’re the captain of one of the biggest hockey markets who hasn’t seen a title in 53 years. When the Maple Leafs announced Tavares as the 25th captain, you could tell he was excited and ready for whatever was going to come his way. Tavares has a great way of keeping himself composed no matter what the situation presents, as he always seems to come out on top. After an impressive first season and a team meltdown in the playoffs, the time for results is now.
While a disgruntled fan base tries to remain hopeful, it’s up to Tavares to lead the team to a Stanley Cup and give them something to cheer about. This is definitely a tall task considering the fact that Leafs Nation has dealt with disappointment for many years. It’s a lot of responsibility to handle, but it’s on him to complete his dream and bring a championship to the city.
Playing in this market comes with a lot of pressure and expectations. These players are going to be under the microscope during the playoffs and they need to put forth their best effort if they want to have a chance at a deep postseason run.