It’s a matchup that many have wanted for years. The Toronto Maple Leafs will face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Everyone, including the Maple Leafs and Canadiens writing staff are excited about this series as it was the focus on the latest episode of Maple Leafs Lounge presented by The Hockey Writers.
It was a very impressive regular season for the North Division champs. However, as we all know, the playoffs are a whole different ball game. Fellow THW Maple Leafs writer Alex Hobson recently wrote how their resiliency is going to be a key part of their success.
While that is going to be critical, there are other factors that could come into play that would either benefit or hurt the Maple Leafs as they look to make a deep playoff run. Here are three x-factors that are going to be the focus for them during the playoffs.
The Power Play
Back in March, I wrote about how the power play needed to heat up in the second half of the season. While the Maple Leafs continued to dominate at five-on-five, the power play remained stagnant with their inability to capitalize on their opportunities.
The Maple Leafs were ranked fourth overall in the league with the man advantage. Now, they’ve fallen in that category as they finished at 20 per cent, 16th overall in the league. They finished the season 20th overall in PP opportunities with 155 and tied with Vegas Golden Knights for 18th overall with 31 goals for.
By comparison, the Golden Knights had 174 opportunities (17.8%). Knowing how dominant they’ve been, we shouldn’t over react. Though the Maple Leafs have really struggled in the second half of the season. The following is a break down of the Maple Leafs percentage by month.
After game 27 was when things started to go south for their power play. It was a red flag when they went 0-for-7 against the Calgary Flames, but it was a stretch of 11 games without a power play goal that was concerning for a team that lighted the lamp with the man advantage. It has got the best of the players at this point.
Their movement and zone entries as a major reason for their lack of success. The Maple Leafs continued to rely on the drop pass for zone entries, resulting in a failed attempt as the opposition is ready at the blue line. While it seems like a great strategy, they rely on it too much and don’t attack with speed to catch them off guard. It always leads to a tough time entering the offensive zone and wasted time to get organized.
There was some tinkering to the backend as we saw Rasmus Sandin on the top power play as his audition was a good sign. He was seen on the top unit over Morgan Rielly as they prepare for their series against the Canadiens. His puck movement and skating seemed to be a spark to get things going as the Maple Leafs did get better looks.
Compared to Rielly, Sandin skated the puck with confidence and entered the zone with force to get their set up going. That is something that you really want to see for a struggling power play. Rielly’s movements and decision making was questionable at best, taking an extra second to get a shot on net or make a pass and resulting in broken opportunities.
It’s one thing if they had great entries, movement and couldn’t capitalize, it’s another when everything is being affected. The good news is that the Maple Leafs continue to be dominant at even strength. If the power play starts to click and make the most of their chances, then that’ll be a recipe for success with the talent that they have.
Defense Has Become a Strength
If there’s one thing that stood out in terms of major improvements this season, it’s the defensive play.
With the offseason signings of T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian on the back end seems to have been paying off for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Brodie has been a major two-way factor, breaking up plays and being effective in transition, while Bogosian has provided a steady defensive presence. It also helps that he has a Stanley Cup to his resume.
Recently, head coach Sheldon Keefe applauded the team’s progress on the defensive side of things compared to where they were the previous season.
|Stat||2019-20 with League Rank||2020-21 with League Rank|
|Goals Against||222 (25th)||148 (7th)|
|Goals Against per Game||3.17 (26th)||2.64 (7th)|
|5v5 Goals Against||157 (28th)||95 (8th)|
|High Danger Goals Against 5v5||93 (29th)||53 (8th)|
There is a stark contrast between last season and this season when it comes to the amount of goals allowed by the Maple Leafs overall and at even strength. In 2019-20 the Maple Leafs were at the bottom of the league in each category. This season, they finished in the top-10 in the goals against category. Overall, the team looks more organized and engaged defensively, applying pressure on the puck carrier and the willingness to get into the shooting lanes.
Even when looking at this heat map from Hockey Viz, you can notice the amount of shots that the Maple Leafs allowed against from 2019-20 and 2020-21— especially in the high danger area.
In 2019-20, the Maple Leafs allowed a significant number of shots in the middle of the ice more so than the league average. This season, the Maple Leafs have done a great job to mitigate the shots in that area. They’re keeping the play to the outside by making it more difficult to get to the middle of the ice as a good number of shots are from just inside the blue line. There are two areas where they allowed shots in the slot, but it’s still a much better result than what it was a season ago.
Compared to previous seasons, this is the best the blue line has played. The defense is definitely going to play a big role if the Maple Leafs plan to make a deep playoff run. They may not have a top tier defenseman, but they’re depth speaks volumes.
Not only did the Maple Leafs defense play well in their own end all season, they were getting the kind of goaltending that will prove to be effective in the playoffs. When Frederik Andersen showed some inconsistencies in his game and when he went down with an injury, it was Jack Campbell that rose to the occasion and took over the reigns in net. Keefe made it official that he was the starter for the playoffs.
After an impressive 11-0 start to the season, despite missing time with injuries, Campbell finished the season with a 17-3-2 record with a 2.15 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. With the numbers and consistent play in the crease that he’s had this year, there isn’t any doubt that he’ll be the starter for Game 1 when the Maple Leafs play the Canadiens.
The last two postseasons, goaltending has come into question. Andersen’s play has started to decline and wasn’t able to provide the goaltending that they needed to push them into the next round, specifically in elimination games. Despite the fact that he missed significant time due to his injury, when healthy, Andersen let in fairly weak goals. While we shouldn’t look too much into his conditioning stint with the Toronto Marlies, Andersen did look more comfortable in net against the Ottawa Senators despite the loss as the team struggled in front of him.
It goes without saying, and Hobson can attest to this, you go with the hot hand. And that is Campbell. This season reassured Campbell’s status as the number one in net and they’re going to rely on him from here on out.
Stanley Cup teams become champions because of great goaltending. With what he accomplished this season, Campbell is looking to provide that steady presence in the net where Andersen couldn’t. There have been instances where goalies with little experience win the Cup. Just ask Cam Ward and Jordan Binnington. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s not out of the question.
Campbell does have little experience in the postseason at the NHL and AHL level. Then again, even with his small sample as an NHL goalie, he took over the starter role this season and provided incredible numbers. Even in a loss, he managed to battle back and let his play speak for itself. He’s going to be the biggest x-factor for the Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs have been dominant all season. However, they know what’s at stake and know they’re going to have to be at their best in the playoffs after these factors have affected them in the past.