After dismantling the Senators Saturday night (I’m not sure what else we can say about Kadri and Lupul…on the fourth Leaf goal, I focused on Kadri; he just has a knack for finding guys and getting to the open space, seemingly always with his stick on the ice), it’s clear by now the Maple Leafs will march into the playoffs this spring for the first time since 2004. They have cemented that point with a recent run of play that has shown they can play (at least in the regular-season) with anyone on the Eastern Conference, home and away.
One of the keys going forward will be staying healthy. Oh, they have depth, yes, on defense and along the forward lines as well, but they are a team that hums along best with Lupul, Kadri and Kessel and of course Phaneuf on defense doing their thing. They are the “elite” players on this team. There are other important individuals, of course—including classic grinder role-players like McClement and the currently injured Komarov, who have been a huge part of the identity shift of this squad—but as with most teams, it would be difficult for the Leafs to be at their best without the “big four” strutting their stuff every night.
And some decent goaltending, which they've been getting more often than not this season.
With that as the backdrop, I’ve been trying to think who would be the “best” (i.e. the team they can beat) fit for the Leafs in round one. But I’ll leave it to you to tell me what you think. There are a couple of ways to look at this question: who would you like the Leafs to play in opening round, because you feel that’s the team they have the best chance of defeating? But beyond that, who would you love to see the Leafs play at some point in the playoffs, from an old-time rivalry perspective? Boston? Ottawa? Montreal?
We all recall that the early 2000s saw some great playoff hockey and some tremendous series’ with the Senators. That’s why there is a rivalry to this day. I remember playoff match-ups with Bobby Orr (right) and the Bruins in 1972 and 1974. Then there is the long history (though not recent, I acknowledge) of classic springtime match-ups with the Habs—notably the four times they met in the ‘60s and both occasions they hooked up in the late 1970s.
Wouldn't series' like that be something? What would you, personally, like to see?
I remember writing some weeks ago that the Leafs were already playing “playoff hockey” under Carlyle, and that that should stand them in good stead if they did indeed reach the spring dance. What I meant was simply that the Leafs, despite their giveaways and various flaws, were doing those playoff-type things: you know, finishing their checks with an edge, keeping games close, matching lines and for the most part keeping the goals against down.
They have taken sideways steps at times since I wrote that, but that has pretty much been their approach. Keep it close, check, check, and check some more and create offense from a generally good defensive structure. The guys with flair—most notably the aforementioned Kessel, Kadri and Lupul—lead the offense, but they have gotten contributions from throughout the lineup, including defensemen like Phaneuf and Franson, which doesn't hurt..
My simple point? I don’t think there will be much of an adjustment for this roster when they hit the playoffs. They have been trying to play 'Carlyle (read playoff) hockey' since the season started. They may not get far in the playoffs (they just might, however) but it won't be because they aren’t ready to play the style that wins in the spring. If anything, given they now have secondary scoring, if they just turn up the ‘urgency’ a tad in the playoffs (everyone naturally does anyway), they may surprise us.
The Jim Morra "playoff" line is not a joke in Leafland anymore. We'll be there with the big boys.
A quick aside: I have no doubt we will need him (and other defensemen as well) if we progress in the playoffs, but for now, it was not, seemingly, necessary to free Jake Gardiner. They’re doing OK without him. We all know that he will be an impact player on this team sooner than later, but as I said in an earlier column, I have zero problem with Carlyle having him watch for a while upstairs. As I said here a year ago, there are still plenty of things the talented young defenseman needs to be better at- things that matter at playoff time.