The Toronto Maple Leafs enter Saturday’s action in fourth place in the NHL standings by points percentage and third place by points earned. They’ve enjoyed as good a start to a regular season as they could have hoped for. Except they have a major dilemma on their hands.
Despite the Maple Leafs’ place in the standings, they’re not even first in their own division. Thanks to the “lovely” playoff format in place, that means another potential matchup with the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
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Why are the Maple Leafs and Lightning destined for yet another playoff series? That’s because the Boston Bruins are in the midst of a truly historic season. The Bruins’ 76 points are 13 points ahead of the Maple Leafs. Thirteen!
As good as the Maple Leafs are, that’s a tall mountain to climb. The Bruins have lost nine games all season in 45 games played. To get at least a point in 88% of your games and wins in 80% of your games is absurd. They will make a real run at getting to 60 wins.
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So if you’re the Maple Leafs, what do you do? They entered the season as favorites to not only win the Atlantic Division, but to win the Eastern Conference also. It figures the one team better than them is not only in their own division but out to enough of a lead where catching them would be extremely hard to do.
There’s really only one thing the Maple Leafs can do at this point given the circumstances. They must let the Bruins go and focus on their task at hand. If they’re going to play the Lightning in the first round, they might as well get home-ice advantage while doing so. That’s where the real race in the standings is.
Let the Bruins Go
The Maple Leafs and Bruins recently played a great game against each other. It showed just how good both teams are. But in the end, it was the Bruins that found a way to win in regulation. That 4-3 win put more separation between the two teams.
However this game also showed what the Maple Leafs should prioritize for the rest of the season. It starts with finishing second in the Atlantic so that a potential Game 7 is played at ScotiaBank Arena. But there’s more to it than just that.
The Maple Leafs are likely not catching the Bruins in the standings. But the Lightning could easily catch the Maple Leafs. As of this writing, they are just four points apart in the standings and the Lightning have two games in hand. Should the Lightning win both games, they would be tied in the Atlantic.
In addition to finishing second in the Atlantic, there are other things the Maple Leafs need to prioritize knowing the Bruins are running away with the NHL lead. Specifically they must do these three things in order to secure second place while putting themselves in the best position possible to make a deep playoff run.
When you consider their path to the playoffs could go Lightning – Bruins – Hurricanes/Metro winner, that’s as daunting a playoff path as there is. It’s of utmost importance to properly position themselves for success.
Get as Healthy as You Can
Auston Matthews has played through an injury. He recently admitted that it’s a matter of managing the injury. Right there, the Maple Leafs need to consider finding opportunities to not only rest Matthews when possible, but other players too. That won’t be easy given how close the Lightning are in the standings. But with as much talent as the Maple Leafs have, they are games in which he could easily rest.
Once their place in the standings is secure, then the Maple Leafs must make smart decisions when it comes to who plays in those more meaningless games. If they hope to finally win a playoff round, they have to be as healthy as possible. Matthews is going to be less than 100%. They might as well get him as healthy as possible.
The same goes for some of the other veterans on the team. If there’s a nagging injury, it’s better to be cautious than anything. GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe need to make good decisions in this regard.
Had the race for the top of the Atlantic been closer, then it’s worth playing the big guns throughout in an effort to get first place and potentially a more favorable matchup.
Stop Playing Down to Competition
This one has been a sore spot for the Maple Leafs for many seasons. No matter how good they’ve been, they’ve always played down to their competition. Remember that California trip earlier this season?
Imagine that the Maple Leafs actually took care of business on that trip against generally weaker competition. Those six points look massive right now. That would not only be a bigger lead on the Lightning, they’d be that much closer to the Bruins. Having those extra points could have changed their strategy for the rest of the season.
An interesting test of this will come right after the All-Star break. The Maple Leafs have five games that they not only should win, but must win. The games are at Blue Jackets, vs. Blue Jackets, vs. Blackhawks, vs. Canadiens and at Blackhawks. All games are against teams in Connor Bedard tank wars. They’ll easily be favored in these games. But can they actually take care of business?
If the Maple Leafs want home-ice advantage in the first round, they better take care of business. That means stop playing down to the competition.
Make the Right Deadline Moves
This goes without saying. But it matters more given not only the competition they’ll face, but the potential consequences of another first-round defeat.
The Maple Leafs need players who can help them defeat the Lightning. They have the offensive firepower. But they need guys who will do the dirty work. They need shot blockers. They need guys who are not afraid to lay a big hit. Why are the Lightning so good? On top of having skill everywhere, they can beat teams up and bully them.
Is that Jake McCabe? Is that Vladislav Gavrikov? There are multiple options on the trade market that could help in that regard. No matter what players they target, they must be able to stand up to the Lightning in a seven-game series.
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The Bruins truly don’t matter to the Maple Leafs. Should they meet later in the playoffs it will matter. But right now, the Maple Leafs need to put their focus on home-ice advantage in the first round while taking steps to be ready to take on the Lightning again.
Let the Bruins go. There will come a time and place to deal with them again. However that time isn’t now. Get home-ice advantage, then take your best shot. That’s their only option given the circumstances.