Maple Leafs Trial By Fire

The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in the 2016-17 NHL playoffs. It’s an amazing place for the Leafs to be in, especially considering that this season was primed to be a bottom five finish that would result in a high draft pick.

No one told the Leafs and they decided to flip the switch and write their own script for the season. The Leafs were buoyed by the amazing rookie class they assembled this year including the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Connor Brown.

Frederik Andersen, the former Anaheim Duck, was also arguably the team’s best player and one of the biggest reasons that the Leafs are currently entrenched in a postseason spot.

It’s now time to get excited if you’re a Leafs fan. This season has blown away any expectations fans might have had and it’s time for the second season to finally begin.

A Successful Season

The Leafs were not supposed to be anywhere near a playoff spot this early into their rebuild. The fact that they are officially in, speaks highly to a number of properties. The first is the coaching of Mike Babcock, the veteran bench boss whose postseason and big game experience is second to none.

He was able to effectively manage the roster which eventually prompted a stunning turnaround and saw the Leafs go from dead last to a postseason berth this year.

The players who took to the ice each night also deserve a huge amount of credit. The development of the rookies was absolutely extraordinary.  No one could have predicted that Matthews would hit the 40 goal plateau and finish with 69 points. Marner and Nylander both ended the season with over 60 points and earned the adoration of the fan base.

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Nikita Zaitsev was a perfect signing made by the Leafs’ scouting staff. He was courted and watched by Brendan Shanahan and has become an integral part of the often thin blueline.

Connor Brown has also been an absolute marvel for the Blue and White this year. He’s arguably the most underrated rookie on the team and finished the year with 20 goals and 36 total points.

The Leafs rookies were a huge reason for the success of this season. They were able to grab hold and shatter numerous records that had stood in place for decades.

The veterans on the team also deserve some credit. Nazem Kadri had the best season of his career and finished with 32 goals and 61 points. He was also excellent in his shutdown role and warranted some Selke talk as the league’s best defensive forward.

The Leafs also got a nice boost with a healthy James Van Riemsdyk. The former second overall pick scored 29 goals and finished with 62 points, the latter being a career high.

Caps vs. Leafs

The postseason matchup has now been set. The Leafs will be taking on the Capitals, the team lead by the dynamic and always dangerous Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals clinched the President’s trophy, awarded annually to the team who finishes with the most points in the regular season.

They’re a good team and a force to be reckoned with. These facts should not intimidate the Leafs, however. The pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the team out of Washington, as they are Stanley Cup favourites.

This is also a Capitals team who is afraid that their Cup window is rapidly closing and who may be running into some cap trouble this summer. This is an important series for them to produce and to show the NHL that they are still elite. They are also looking to shake the playoff choker label which they have carried for a few years.

The Leafs, on the other hand, are playing with house money. This essentially means that they can hit the ice and play their fast-paced, high event style. When the Leafs are flying down the ice and playing with speed, that is when they are at their absolute best.

The onus is on the Caps to prove that their regular season success isn’t just a fluke. For this reason, playing against a team like the Leafs is a very dangerous proposition. The Buds are a squad that has already exceeded expectations and had a successful season.

They’re going to get some incredibly valuable experience and no matter the outcome, the young guns on the squad will learn and grow based on the outcomes of these upcoming games.

Whatever happens in the playoffs, fans need to be extremely proud of these players and what they’ve accomplished. They blew away any and all expectations and will be ready to take the next step in the coming years.