It would be difficult to find many Leaf fans who are not pleased with where they sit in the current NHL standings, even on the heels of Tuesday’s loss in Washington. Whether all fans are happy with how they got here (debates over Carlyle, roster decisions, good luck versus good play, etc.) is another subject, but I’ll not wade into that debate again today.
The Leafs have received solid netminding most of this season; they have fairly balanced scoring, depth on defense, toughness, and better special teams. But there is one thing I do want to raise and it’s related to a question I have brought up here at VLM a number of times over the past many months, and it is this: do you have any concerns about where the Leafs are "at" when it comes to leadership and experience, especially heading into the playoffs?
I suppose the Washington loss triggered that thought again, though the nagging notion has never left me entirely. I recognize that, goodness, we can’t expect the Leafs to win (or even play well) every night. They were less than stellar Monday night in their win at the ACC and Reimer basically grabbed those points for them. That they struggled in Washington is maybe a bit of a surprise, but they were likely not as motivated as they would have been had they actually lost while playing poorly Monday against New Jersey. However the Caps encounter reminded me a bit of how things can go in a playoff game. Opposition building, loud fans, a quick goal here, a break there, and suddenly you’re down 2-0. The other team's superstar is feeling it, and things don't look very good.
You can’t just pack up, go home and say “we’ll get them tomorrow night”. You can only afford so many losses in the playoffs and you have to fight every night—and sometimes you have to come from behind.
I’m not suggesting the Leafs can’t do this. I know they can. And not to spout even more clichés, but it’s a different ballgame in the playoffs. Teams need to dig deep and all that stuff. The Leafs are capable but I was checking the bench Tuesday night looking for someone to grab them by the throat and push their teammates forward. It didn’t really happen.
When it was 2-0, Jake Gardiner tried a solo rush, ended up inside the Washington blueline, lost the puck, got tangled up with Ribiero and that allowed the Brouwer goal that essentially put the game out of reach. I like Gardiner’s take charge, confident attitude, but I’m not sure that when you are on the road, behind 2-0 with half a game left, you need to take chances. Maybe Carlyle saw that differently than me, and I understand that Jake wanted to make things happen. But I would have preferred a little more caution while the game was still up for grabs—especially when a point on the road was all they really needed.
But Gardiner was maybe the least of the problems Thursday night. It was great to see Lupul back (and I’m glad Gunnarsson is getting some time off to heal) because Lupul seems to be a guy teammates look to. McClement fits that “veteran” role, as does Liles. But I’m still wondering if we have the ‘veteran savvy’ to carry us if things go sideways when the games really start to matter.
I’ve generally been impressed with their ability to fight through things, including injuries, this season. But I’ll say it again: when you are facing elimination (i.e. playoff action), it’s a different game. A team needs leaders; you need experience.
There is no team, as I’ve noted before, that can’t be beat in the East. But the Leafs can be beat, too, eh? Stellar goaltending can often cover up some mistakes, a few turnovers and sometimes even sloppy or careless play. And great goaltending can provide leadership too, some inspiration when you see your goalie pulling rabbits out of a hat. But a team can’t rely on that exclusively.
For you, who are the leaders, the “pro’s pros”, those experienced greybeards who can lead us when adversity strikes, as it inevitably does in the playoffs- like what happened in an albeit less important game Tuesday night in Washington? Are there some Leafs who you sense may not be at their best when things go south during a game, players who may, say, hang their head a bit instead of digging deep? Do we have some guys who tend to go invisible a bit too often?
A couple of other questions:
- Is Kadri looking a bit tired, maybe just a natural extension of playing so well and hard through much of the season? I’ve loved his game all season, but just this week I wondered if he was tired, maybe hitting a mini-rookie wall. He maybe doesn't have that dance in his step these days…
- Which Leafs would you like to see pick up their game as we head down to the last few contests of the regular season?
- Who do you think has actually picked up their game of late?
You’re not going to win every night, including in the playoffs. The point of this post is not to over-react to one game in isolation. Washington has been the hottest team in the East for some time now.
Rather, it is to bring forward a thought that we have considered here before.
The difference, now, is that the Leafs will soon play meaningful non-regular season games for the first time in nine years. Are we ready?