Maybe the best thing about the way the Leafs are playing so far this season under Randy Carlyle (I say so far because most of us, while eternally hopeful, can’t help but think back to what happened a year ago…) is this: the team is already playing the style they will need to, to be competitive in the playoffs.
(I’ll only make a brief comment about the loss in Tampa: the guys gave what they had left in the tank, but it wasn’t enough. Scrivens made some saves but ran out of gas, too, on the second night of a back-to-back after delivering some sterling netminding since taking over from Reimer. Phaneuf struggled on a couple of plays beneath his own goal line; Grabovski did a drive-by on the Stamkos goal that gave Tampa the lead in the second, when he could have stopped and fought for the puck. Guys had to be playing on fumes and the outcome was not a shock. As we all know, Tampa has some talent and if you give them time and space, as coaches like to say nowadays, you’ll probably struggle. We did on Tuesday night, though the late Kessel goal jolted the lackluster Leafs to life for a late push. All that said, did you like Kadri’s feistiness when he took on Hedman in the third period?)
What do I mean when I say the Leafs are already playing the way they will have to in the playoffs? Simply this: as far back as I can remember, the playoffs have always been a different kettle of fish. They just are. Whether you finish the regular-season on a high, or go into the playoffs on a losing streak, momentum starts with what you do in Game One of the first round. (Even “Game One” is not a tell-tale sign, of course. In our last Cup year, back in 1967, the Leafs limped into the playoffs in third place in the old six-team NHL. They had to play the first place Blackhawks and were hammered something like 6-2 on the road in the first game of the series. But the Leafs went on to win in six games. Same thing happened in the next round against the hated Habs. The Leafs were lit up in the first game, but rebounded to win the series in six games. I just have to mention that sometimes—it makes me feel good, even 45 years later.)
The point is, the playoffs are a new season. But more than that, everything changes. Checking is tighter, much tighter. Open ice is harder to find. There is precious little fighting in the modern era of playoff hockey, but toughness is still the order of the day. The willingness to fight through checks, take hits to make plays (I became a Lecavalier guy the year Tampa won the Cup, when I saw him take a smash to the mouth to make a pass which turned into a goal. I'd never thought of him in those terms before, but that’s what you have to do in the playoffs—take serious physical punishment to make plays that most often, won’t net results. But you have to keep making the effort...)
Yes everything is amplified. Teams like the Rangers that block tons of shots block even more shots. Players who won’t normally go to the net will make that extra effort. Everything is just that much harder. It’s 60 minutes of maximum effort—and more, some nights.
But here’s the thing: the Leafs are playing that way right now. Oh, I know the temperature will be raised come April and the playoffs, but essentially, all those things I’m talking about—playing it close to the vest, finishing checks, fighting for every inch of ice—are part of the blue and white Carlyle arsenal. So it’s not as though they will go from being a regular season team that relies on their superstars to score a hat-trick every night to a squad that suddenly relies on defense. They are already doing so many of those tiny but important things that often lead to success. Playing hard and smart is imprinted on—and in—their psyche.
The lights will be brighter and the competition will be better, for sure, in the playoffs. But the right mentality is already in place. And if we can get some of the wounded guys back, and add someone with Gardiner’s talent to the mix, is it possible that we might just surprise some people? When healthy, we have three lines that many nights are indistinguishable in terms of their ability to score goals and apply pressure in the offensive end. We have blueline depth (you’ve heard me say here many times that teams need to be 10-deep in the spring if they want to go deep in the playoffs), given that useful veterans like Komisarek and Liles are available, in addition to our current starting six—and Gardiner will likely be here so, too.
Again, am I predicting playoff success? That’s not my intent. I’m hardly in that heady a mood just yet. But I do believe Carlyle has the squad playing a style and a system that will require very little in the way of practical or mental “tweaking” come playoff time. We’ll just have to do what all teams do: turn up the intensity.
That will be the next measuring stick.