Maple Leafs’ Playoff X-Factors: Hainsey, Babcock & Andersen

Until their surprise victory in Game 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs entered round one of this season’s playoffs, just like they did last season, as underdogs to the Boston Bruins. Last season, the Maple Leafs fell apart in Game 7 and lost 7-4 to the Bruins. Most hockey pundits seemed to believe this season would be déjà vu all over again and the Maple Leafs would experience another round one defeat at the hands of the Bruins.

Then, a funny thing happened. The Maple Leafs showed up strong. Their speed and defense (including stellar goaltending from Frederik Andersen) pressured the Bruins into countless mistakes. And, the result was a surprisingly easy 4-1 victory.

Relate – Maple Leafs’ Game 1 Victory: 11 Thoughts

That said, the Bruins have been a strong team all season and no one expects them to fold after one poor game. The Maple Leafs are still in tough. And, if the team has a chance for a round one victory, a number of key things must happen. Specifically, a number of team members must come through in ways they did not during the regular season series against the Bruins.

I am calling these team members the Maple Leafs “X-factors.” Here’s my list of Maple Leafs’ X-factors if they stand a chance of beating the Bruins.

X-Factor One: Ron Hainsey

The knock on Ron Hainsey is that he is old and slow. Maple Leaf fans have constantly pointed this out to me all season long. And, they’re correct. Hainsey doesn’t skate as well now as he did when he was a younger player.

However, what Hainsey has going for him is that he’s old and smart. For those two reasons, he has head coach Mike Babcock’s trust. And, time after time Babcock sticks with Hainsey on the team’s first defensive pairing. He certainly played well during the Game 1 victory, but he must continue to play well and be a steady influence on the team’s rear guard.

Maple Leafs Wild celebrate
Toronto Maple Leafs defensemen Jake Gardiner (51), Ron Hainsey (2) and Morgan Rielly (44) congratulate goaltender Frederik Andersen (31) (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

Babcock was asked just that question during an April 9 interview:

“What gives you trust in Ron Hainsey at this point in his career?”

Babcock answered,He knows where to stand.”

The interviewer persisted: “How does that help in a series like this?”

Babcock answered simply, “He doesn’t go minus. He doesn’t get scored on. He knows what to do. He is way better offensively than people think. We never put him in offensive situations. He makes good decisions. He talks to his partner. He’s made his partner…. 1+1=2, but in a partnership that is really good, it might be 2.5 or 3. How’s that?”

Reading between the lines in this answer is that Babcock is trying to avoid defensive mistakes that will cost his team games. As long as Babcock is the coach, he will play Hainsey. Now, Hainsey must repay that trust with solid play. For now, Hainsey is Babcock’s man. Time will tell, and soon, if Babcock is correct.

X-Factor Two: Mike Babcock

As I watched the regular season unfold, I came to wonder two things: (1) Was the Maple Leafs’ offense too predictable? Specifically, did they rely on the stretch pass too often? and (2) Was Babcock too stubborn as a coach? Again, specifically, did he live or die with the same line combinations all game long regardless of what happened on the ice?

I wasn’t the only person to wonder about the Maple Leafs’ predictability. In fact, Auston Matthews said as much earlier in the season: “I think sometimes we’re a bit too predictable, you do the same things over and over again and teams watch video so you gotta mix it up and change it up … you just can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again.”

Related – Leafs vs. Bruins: Rivalry Renewed

Obviously, in the Game 1 victory, Nazem Kadri’s “home run” passed worked. But I also think Matthews was right that opponents have watched the video and know how often the Maple Leafs use the stretch pass. I think other teams have plans in place to defend against it.

Mike Babcock, Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What I was impressed with in Game 1 was that the Maple Leafs crashed the net more, spent more time in the offensive zone, and had the defensemen put more pucks on net. That was the Maple Leafs’ first goal: Jake Muzzin threw it on net and Mitch Marner smacked the rebound behind Tuukka Rask.

Second, in Game 1, I thought Babcock played more with his lineups. He used the fourth line well, and their banging and crashing added value to the Maple Leafs’ attack. I hope all the lines play as effectively as they did on Thursday night. However, if they don’t, I’d love to see Babcock try to load up and overwhelm a team with a “skill line” of – say – Matthews, John Tavares, and Marner.

X-Factor Three: Defensive Top-Six

All season long, the defense has been the Maple Leafs’ biggest issue. At the trade deadline, the team added Muzzin; but, then both Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott went down with injuries. Only recently, have these two defensemen returned healthy to the team’s lineup. Obviously, their absence was an issue and the team’s overall record showed that they missed both defensemen.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

But, now that both Gardiner and Dermott are back, the Maple Leafs have three defensive pairings that could be really helpful shutting down the Bruins’ offense. That top-six defensive unit hasn’t been available all season. Should this lineup work well, especially if Nikita Zaitsev plays as well as he did during Game 1, the team’s defense will be more rested and less likely to make mistakes.

Gardiner and Dermott played fewer minutes than normal, but they are likely to play more as the series continues. The quality of play of the Maple Leafs’ defense in total might become a deciding factor in the team’s success.

X-Factor Four: Frederik Andersen

Finally, the Maple Leafs can win the Stanley Cup if Frederik Andersen gets hot. He has the ability by himself to carry the team: he’s that good. In the Game 1 victory, he looked sharp, calm, and as I noted in a previous post “organized.” He had great positioning all game long.

Jake Gardiner, Frederik Andersen
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner congratulates goaltender Frederik Andersen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /David Zalubowski)

If he can continue that kind of play, he can both stop pucks and inspire his teammates. He is as much a leader on this team as anyone. His play and leadership could be the single difference in this round one playoff series.

Related – Frederik Andersen: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Best Player By Far

Gearing Up for Game 2

If I were the Bruins, to a man I would be embarrassed by the play. How the Bruins show up in Game 2 could be a deciding factor for this series. In Game 1, they were out-skated by a faster team. They were pressured into mistakes. And, they were outmuscled. That isn’t Bruins’ hockey.

Game 2 should be really interesting. I look for it to be much more physical, and I am sure both teams are gearing for that option.