What ifs are the biggest bother to a sports fan. Longing for success and the bitter taste of defeat couple to create a laundry list of alternative outcomes laced with “what ifs”. If there wasn’t a goaltending controversy in Vancouver, would the Canucks have been better or worse off? If the delay of game penalty didn’t exist, would the landscape of the 2013 NHL playoffs be completely altered? If Jarome Iginla picked Boston, what would that mean? If the Leafs managed to steal game 7 from the Bruins, would they be skating away to the Stanley Cup Final? These are the questions and gear grinders that drive sports fans to insanity. There’s no point in dissecting every avenue if it didn’t happen. What ifs are the go to argument for fans who can’t get past their own defeat.
The Toronto Maple Leafs cruised through the shortened 48 game season dealing with injuries to Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson, Tyler Bozak, and so on. These injuries did not hamper their chances of getting into the playoffs, or sacrifice their ability to match up with their best chance to succeed.
It’s a strong point to make, but getting into the playoffs is the first battle. Getting through the playoffs is a mental task, more for fans than for the players. The Leafs finished in 5th place in the Eastern Conference. They would be matched up with the 4th place team, which happened to be the Boston Bruins. The 4th and 5th place match ups are always expected to be the most evenly matched based solely on their win/loss and point totals. The first place team is matched with the just-squeaked-in eighth place hockey team which is assumed to be best case scenario for the first place team. This isn’t always the case.
To win the Stanley Cup your team needs to put together 16 wins – no matter how you get them – to have the right to lift that cup over your head and scream uncontrollably, give it a peck or two. This is a universal number that is mandatory for the championship team to achieve. First place means nothing, eight place means nothing. Where you finish in the regular season has little to no weight on your chances to win in the playoffs. All you have to do is get in, the rest is up to your team. Nobody gets a free ride in the playoffs.
What if the Leafs were to face the New York Rangers in the first round instead of the Boston Bruins?
Irrelevant. Aforementioned, where you finish has little to do with what you are able to do in the playoffs. The regular season and those stats get thrown out the window, and it is ultimately a clean slate. Regular season match ups mean nothing now, because in the playoffs it’s do or die. You can bet your bottom dollar on the sun coming out tomorrow in the regular season. That’s something you can’t do in the playoffs. Lose 4, go home.
Wondering about the Leafs playing the Rangers is the equivalent of believing breaking a mirror is 7 years of bad luck. If the Leafs were to play the Rangers in the first round, there’s no saying the same Rangers team that squeaked past the Washington Capitals in game 7 of round 1 would have showed up to play. They could have been an entirely different team. You prepare for the team you play by watching video, studying their habits, and literally stalking their every on-ice move. The Rangers formed their game plan around the way the Capitals played. They played to their strengths, or tried their best to, while trying to expose the Capitals weaknesses.
The system the Rangers played with wouldn’t have been the same against the Leafs. The Leafs could have won, they could have been swept, it could have been a 5, 6, 7 game series. The Rangers that played the Capitals would not have been the Rangers that showed up to play the Leafs.
What if the Leafs didn’t collapse in game 7?
If the Leafs didn’t collapse in game 7, they would have won game 7. Simple.
Why they collapsed was the experience and the talent of the Bruins trumping the inexperience and young talent of the Leafs. Speculating about penalties taken, or uncalled penalties wouldn’t have done a thing for that series. I’m not calling on destiny here. I’m giving the Bruins credit well deserved for doing the one thing that is done time and time again in the playoffs; exposing weaknesses.
The Bruins owned the series. They were the more talented, more experienced, bigger team that was being out-skated (in very few opportunities seized) by the Leafs in their losses. The Bruins managed to win four, which is what they traveled to Toronto and back for. They got the job done, and the Leafs didn’t.
The Leafs had their chance fair and square just like the other eight teams in the Eastern Conference and they didn’t get the job done. Don’t blame anyone else or any other variable for their failure to win game 7.
If The Leafs beat the Bruins and the Rangers, would they be walking through the series with the Penguins?
No. The Bruins won because they exposed weaknesses that were very apparent and used their experience to their advantage. Not to mention their stellar goaltending, their large captain who runs that blueline, and their four line contribution on a consistent basis.
The Rangers played a game that held off the offense of the Capitals. They didn’t play a straight attack and expose game they would have against the Leafs. The way the Rangers played in the first round catered to a plan that would see them prevail against the Capitals, not the Leafs.
Goaltending controversy aside, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have done the same thing to the Leafs as they did to the Senators. The talent level of the Penguins is far above the Senators or the Leafs as they stand right now in 2013. Talent is not always an indicator of success – I’m looking at you, New York Rangers. But the talent of the Penguins that has been clicking experienced trouble with the Islanders, but the better team won. They experienced minor trouble with the Sens, but prevailed easily. If they were to face the Leafs in this conference final, the experience of the Penguins and the inexperience of the Leafs would come to hurt the Leafs once again.
The Penguins are struggling against the Bruins because the Bruins faced adversity through the season as a team, and through the first round. They have found themselves comfortable playing aggressively in front of a very capable and dependable Tuukka Rask. Every part of the Bruins team is clicking, and the same can’t be said for the Penguins who are struggling against a team that is on it’s game.
The Leafs wouldn’t have made it this far anyway. The Bruins have been handling their business and gradually gaining speed which is what championship teams tend to do. It wasn’t the Leafs year. They had their chance to get into the second round and they didn’t make it happen. End of story.