As the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to play the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, they already sit on a number of franchise records. Those new records include victories for a season (now with 50) and points for a season (now with 106).
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In fact, unless the wheels fall off, the team looks as if they’ve secured second place in the Atlantic Division. They’ve also pushed the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins back into the third and fourth spots.
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Yesterday, when talking about the 2021-22 team setting records for an old franchise, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe said he feels the team still has much work to do. He noted that “I don’t know that it means a lot. Especially, with where we need to get to as a team when it counts the most but it’s obviously ‘not nothing’ and I think it speaks to the work that this team has done and speaks to what this team is capable of.”
In this post, I’ll look at four reasons why I believe this might be the season the Maple Leafs make a long playoff run.
Reason One: This Team Is Improved in Many Ways
I personally believe the Maple Leafs have the chops and are going to make a long postseason run. I think this is the best team the organization has put together in many seasons, for as long as I can remember. I think the team, for the first time in a long time, has other NHL teams thinking the same way. I also believe it will be good to take on the very best of the Atlantic Division first and then worry about everyone else second.
First, I think the team has plenty of skill – enough to go a long way. Second, I think the team has more and stronger depth than it’s ever had in my memory – it can (if needed) cover injuries. Third, I think the team’s leadership is maturing. Fourth, I think the team believes it can win the Stanley Cup. Fifth, I think the players are determined to go a long way. Sixth, I believe the other teams in the NHL also believe the Maple Leafs can win it all.
Reason Two: The Maple Leafs Have Made the Necessary Improvements
This season’s team is different than any other team that I can remember in the near past. The team is maturing. I think it matters – in a positive way – that they were dumped so many times recently during the playoffs. I think it provides a common goal and the attitude needed to achieve that goal.
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Specifically, I think it has made Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, among others, work to modify their games in ways that help them become more successful. Matthews has learned to score from different places on the ice. He’s no longer snapshot from distance. Marner has started to score more and has become more physical, and that’s taken some of the predictability from the team’s offense.
The team’s offense is not concentrated on only one line. This is, with William Nylander moving to the third line and scoring 31 goals already, a three-line team. The emergence of Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev as secondary scorers has helped give the team more scoring opportunities.
John Tavares is quietly steady sometimes, which makes him seem less than special sometimes. But he’s scored 26 goals and is a point-a-game player (almost – one point short). Finally, scoring from Morgan Rielly only adds to the mix. He has 55 assists already and could turn in a 70-point season.
Reason Three: The Team’s Defense and Special Teams Are Far Better
This Maple Leafs are more physical than they’ve been in the past, and it’s not just the addition of defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and the regular addition of Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds into the lineup for any game where it seems they are needed. Marner is becoming more physical. The “greasy rat” Michael Bunting is annoyingly in the grill of opponents and is drawing penalties in the process. Justin Holl hits. Physical play seems to have become more of a team ethos than in the past.
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The team defense is now one of the strengths of the team. Sure, there are nights where it doesn’t show up; however, I heard Maple Leafs’ commentator and former Toronto Marlies assistant coach Justin Bourne talk about how tough it is for a professional NHL hockey team to make it a mental priority to show up every night – especially against the weaker teams in the NHL. That’s been shown this season.
Reason Four: This Team Has Confident Swagger
As all Maple Leafs’ fans will frustratingly tell others, the regular season differs from the postseason. The team knows that, too. That propensity seems borne out with this team. The Maple Leafs regularly show up against the Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Florida Panthers, but sometimes not against the Buffalo Sabres or (their opponent tonight) the Flyers.
However, when they decide and dial in, they have shown they can play against – and beat – any team in the league. The team gets it; recently there was a rumor that the Maple Leafs’ management had called the team into question about losing to lesser teams while beating the better teams. The rumor had it that the team told management to leave them alone – they’d show up when needed. If so, that’s attitude and swagger.
The team’s special teams are stronger this season than in the past. That was an area the team decided needed help and the organization brought in assistant coach Dean Chynoweth. He’s helped. The team now has the best power play in the NHL and the seventh-best penalty kill. The Maple Leafs lead the NHL with 13 short-handed goals.
How the Play Will Settle Out, No One Knows
The Maple Leafs are prepared for the postseason. Even coach Keefe has improved his coaching ability and has become more experienced. He’s thinking and tinkering. He’s been preparing for the contingencies of the postseason.
The team’s depth and experience are vastly improved. Who can argue with the team’s skill? It’s been a long time since the Maple Leafs have been this solid on defense. I believe the on-ice team leadership is determined this is the season.
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But, what about the goalies? Jack Campbell is finally healthy. He could have shut out the New York Islanders except for some unlucky bounces (Alex Kerfoot scored into his own goal) and being screened by his own player (Lyubushkin).
Can the goalies make the stops they need to make to allow their team to win? What gives me the most hope is that this team will play for goalie Campbell.
All that adds up to the fact that I have a good feeling.
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