The Toronto Maple Leafs are halfway through their 82 game season, which makes it the perfect point to look back and see how far they’ve come since the beginning of the season.
No grades will be handed out here. This will be a look at the trends of the Leafs’ first half of the season which should give you a better appreciation of how far this team has come in a mere four months.
Think back to the beginning of the season. Before the regular season started and before the preseason. What did you expect from the Leafs this season? Did you expect the team to have another bottom-five finish or were your sights set on the playoffs because of Auston Matthews?
After how brutally bad the Leafs were last season it seemed like there were no expectations put on the team. Sure they went out and got a starting goalie and drafted Matthews first overall, but they were still going to be a young and inexperienced team.
The first couple games of the season only confirmed that. The rookies were exciting. The Leafs were piling up the goals. But they couldn’t hold a lead and it was painfully clear that their defense would be their undoing. The hype surrounding Matthews looked to be well placed after his four-goal game in Ottawa, but the same couldn’t be said about Frederik Andersen.
Andersen’s start to the season made everyone question if this was management’s first big mistake. His first five games were particularly bad with Andersen only having a save percentage above .900 in the game against the Boston Bruins. It wasn’t until after the 7-3 blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that Andersen started to settle down in net. Since then he’s been the most reliable player on the team.
The Leafs then started clawing their way up the standings to challenge for a playoff spot. So now, in just four months, expectations have gone from the Leafs finishing in the bottom of the NHL again to playoff hopes. They may end up missing the playoffs in the end, but the Leafs look like a legitimate playoff contender and that’s enough to give fans hope for a post-season appearance.
The “Four Goal” Problem
Watching the Leafs when they have a lead is one of the most nerve-racking things in sports.
See if you can remember watching one of these games.
The Leafs start the game on fire, quickly putting up a few goals in the first period and the second. Heading into the third period the Leafs are leading 4-1 and the game looks to be done. You step away for a moment, maybe to grab a beverage or use the facilities, and the opposing team has made it 4-3.
The last few minutes of the game slowly tick away and the Leafs are holding on. In the dying seconds of the game, one of the Leafs’ defenders forgets how to play hockey and the game is tied.
Overtime is close, but you already know that the Leafs are going to lose. This has happened six times so far this season with the Leafs scoring four or more goals and losing their lead. Of those six, the Leafs have only won once which happened to be the Centennial Classic against the Detroit Red Wings.
I include it here just so you can enjoy the one positive from that Leafs game description.
This is the biggest trend that I’ve noticed with the Leafs this season. Now, there are many positives to look at like the rookies, but the Leafs’ inability to hold a lead will be their downfall if they can’t solve this problem.
Although most of these ‘four-goal’ games happened in October, it has still been a nagging issue for the Leafs. This is a trend that the Leafs need to work at fixing. Losing four-goal leads does happen, but it shouldn’t happen this consistently. This is something worth watching as the season continues.
Since the start of the season the Leafs have exceeded every expectation. The difference between the team now and four months ago is massive.
The rookies have proven doubters wrong. Matthews and Mitch Marner are both contending for the Calder Trophy, which makes it funny that some thought Marner wasn’t ready for the NHL. Connor Brown and Zach Hyman have earned spots in the NHL through their hard work and have been the perfect wingers for Matthews, despite the difference in skill.
Andersen has put the team on his back and is heading for a playoff spot. He’s played better than what we expected and he gives the Leafs a chance in every game he plays.
There are still problems to watch for, though — the ‘four-goal’ problem and the team’s defensive breakdowns. Maybe the Leafs’ defense will develop further and stop making costly mistakes, but at this point, the solution will probably be found in the offseason.
With how far the Leafs have come this season it will be interesting to see where the team is by the end. Can the rookies keep up this pace and push the Leafs into a playoff spot or will they slow down as the season drags on?