If you look at their win-loss record, you’d think everything was fine with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but something feels wrong about this record. It should be better. As I have been watching their games, when the Maple Leafs don’t get off to a good start, it feels like a bad one and, when they get off to a bad start, it feels like the team’s attitude is a bit too confident, as though they’re saying, “There’s no problem here, we’ll just play hard in the third period and come back and win.”
Honestly, that’s often what they do. They start with a concerted spurt, take over the play, and even pull out games in the final seconds and I mean, the final seconds. On one hand, that’s good news but I’m wondering if that isn’t also a problem.
The Maple Leafs’ December Record
The Maple Leafs’ record in December was a “healthy” 8-3-2. I use quotations marks because I question how healthy it is when you consider how good the team could be. The Tampa Bay Lightning, the team the Maple Leafs probably best compare to, were 12-0-1 during the month of December. They lost in overtime in Winnipeg to the Jets 5-4 on Dec. 16. That record is, obviously, unsustainable, but it shows a difference.
Let’s look at the Maple Leafs’ losses in December: On Dec. 6 they lost 5-4 in overtime to the Detroit Red Wings; on Dec. 8, they lost 6-3 to the Boston Bruins, on Dec. 13, they lost 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning; on Dec. 15, they lost 4-3 in overtime to the Florida Panthers and, on Dec 29, they lost 4-0 to the New York Islanders.
No one can expect the Maple Leafs to win every game, no team does.
So, forgetting the losses against the Lightning (everyone loses to the Lightning these days), the Bruins (the Bruins had the Leafs’ number, played them tough and frustrated them), and the last game against the Islanders (it was the second game of a back-to-back, and any team is allowed a stinker once in a while), we have the two losses to the Red Wings and the Panthers in overtime.
The Maple Leafs should have won those games. When it mattered, towards the end of the game, they pushed furiously and tied both games. But, they lost to a sudden goal in overtime in both games.
Both these games followed a similar pattern: the Maple Leafs fell behind early, caught up, but couldn’t finish. In fact, the same pattern was evident in the Dec. 23rd overtime win against the same Red Wings but Kasperi Kapanen dribbled a lucky one through the goalie as he was falling down.
In these losses, the team didn’t play well enough to get ahead and, although they mounted a furious rally, a bad break and a missed assignment beat them.
Is Confidence Always Good?
The Maple Leafs are a confident team, as they should be. They are that good. Their confidence is a difference-maker because, when a team has it, the players never feel out of a game. This Maple Leafs’ team seldom quits.
But, hockey is a game of bounces. I call this the OMG-what-just-happened factor, where the play turns on a skate blade, and what seemed to be shaping up positively for one team suddenly turns negative. Because the game of hockey is so explosive and because scores are so relatively low, one mistake can be the difference between winning and losing.
The Maple Leafs have had their fair share of good and bad breaks, every team does. For example, Morgan Rielly’s desperate save on an odd-man advantage deep in his own zone turned into a goal the other way; or, as noted, Kapanen’s just-put-it-towards-net goal for a stunning overtime win.
But, the hockey gods play both sides. If the Maple Leafs didn’t put themselves into situations where an unexpected break either way meant success or failure, they would have a better record. They are good enough to play from behind, but they are also too good to keep falling behind. As Mike Babcock suggested after the Kapanen winner, “I like the resiliency when we need it. I wish we didn’t have to use it.”
Areas of Possible Improvement
It feels that the Maple Leafs, despite their really good record, could be better in a number of areas.
Area One: As noted, the Maple Leafs could come out stronger and take over games. They have the elite players to do so, but they don’t always. This pattern isn’t bad luck, and I can understand a bad bounce or a good play from the opposition. Every team has skilled players, and sometimes these skills are rewarded.
Area Two: The Maple Leafs could quit playing down to their opponents. The Panthers and the Red Wings are not the Lightning. The Maple Leafs can over match these teams in most areas. However, they don’t always do so.
Area Three: The Maple Leafs could figure out how not to be pushed around. The Bruins pushed them around in Boston. That was the difference in the game. The Islanders, to a lesser extent, clogged them up and the Leafs’ offense didn’t compete.
Area Four: The Maple Leafs’ middle lines could dominate. Most fans know that the Maple Leafs’ top six is stacked with elite players but their depth is also difficult to match. Their third line is too good not to beat the third lines on other teams, especially with Nazem Kadri and William Nylander. Really, few other teams have these kinds of players NOT playing in the top six. That’s a luxury the Maple Leafs should take advantage of.
Fortunately, the Maple Leafs have a break in their schedule. They don’t play again until Jan. 3 against the Minnesota Wild at home. There has been no recent word on Frederik Andersen’s groin injury, but noting it as day-to-day gives some hope that he will be in the net really soon. He’s a difference-maker.