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Maple Leafs’ playoff presence worth the wait…

Sometimes in life you get the biggest kick when something totally positive and unexpected happens—or when something good happens much sooner than you expected it to. That’s a bit what has happened this season from the perspective of the Maple Leaf and their supporters.

As we have discussed here late in the NHL season, few expected this kind of step forward this "soon" (I know it's a bit hard to say soon after only one Leaf squad has made the playoffs in over a decade and all the "rebuilds" we have seen...) given the challenge that was in front of Brendan Shanahan exactly three years ago when he was hired. But here the Leafs are, ensconced in the playoff picture and looking like a team that can play with anyone.

What was good to see from a Leaf perspective is that the team earned its way into the playoffs, including against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins at the ACC on Saturday night.  They didn’t wait and depend on other teams to lose. They had to beat some very good teams down the stretch. That was very encouraging but the reality is that they were consistent pretty much from the get-go this season. It took a while for Andersen (hopefully his injury is minor enough that he’ll be ready to go for Game 1 in the playoffs) to settle in, but he has been mostly really, really good all season.

And of course, their array of rookie stars is, well, stunning. How often does an organization unveil that many kids the same year, and they all perform so well? We all know the names—Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Zaitsev, Brown, Hyman and Soshnikov. And other youngsters have contributed to the team’s step forward, too, including Carrick, Gauthier and now Kapanen.

I don’t know how far this club can go in the playoffs. We know that every team and every player raises their game at this time of year.  Each game in the playoffs is such a grind. (I say it every year, but it’s true: I believe the best hockey that is played anywhere happens in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with 16 teams willing to do anything to get to the next round, before fatigue and injury attrition sets in…) But that very idea of the Leafs being in the playoffs at the end of a full 82-game schedule for the first time since 2004 is something. It’s been a long time, obviously, but it’s been worth the wait.

I expect our young forwards to perform, because while their skill is certainly a big part of the game for most of them, they also are hard working players and that's what's needed at playoff time. So I think they’ll be fine in the playoffs, at home and on the road. (I know we may sometimes think, “These guys are too young to understand the pressure they’re under, that's why they're done so well…”. That may be somewhat true, but in this day and age, I think most of the “kids” know exactly what’s going on, including the expectations in the rabid Toronto hockey market. They can handle it. What most of them don’t have—yet—is NHL playoff experience.)

Mostly I’ll be interested to see how our defense plays under the bright lights of the playoff atmosphere. Gardiner has had a breakout year; Rielly less so for the most part. But Gardiner has some playoff experience and Rielly is a proud, determined young athlete. They’ll compete well, I’m sure.

Zaitsev is completing his first NHL season but he’s already 25, so he has plenty of experience, just not in the NHL playoffs. I suspect Polak will provide the kind of veteran leadership on the blueline that a young team like this may well need, as will Hunwick. Polak has played a lot in the playoffs, including in the finals last spring with the Sharks.

It will be another kick at the playoff can for Bozak, Kadri and van Riemsdyk, who all did pretty well for the most part against the Bruins a few years ago in that seven-game series. And I’m pleased that at age 30, the feisty Komarov will get another chance to do his thing as a difference-making agitator for the blue and white at playoff time.

A season finale loss at home to the Blue Jackets means the Leafs will take on the Capitals in the first round. While a matchup with the Senators would have been fun (especially to rekindle the great springtime playoff battles of the early 2000s), a series against Washington works, too.

The Capitals have proven themselves to be the best team in the East all season long and deserve their first place standing. They are well-coached and there is much more to their roster than Ovechkin, but that's OK. The Leafs are in the playoffs, and gave us a tremendously entertaining regular season along the way.

Do you think they'll surprise us again?


  1. It was a very good year and the playoffs are/were a nice surprise for me.

    Very unlikely to see a surprise against the Caps in the playoffs. I think this is going to be a massive eye opener for a lot of the players just how different the game is in the playoffs. They got a sniff of it last week against the Caps when there was no room at all to do anything in that game. Babcock said it best last night. "I will do my best to tell them exactly what will happen in the next couple of days. And they won't believe me." And that is fine. All of it has to be learned and why not this year so next years playoff team will have a much better idea what to expect.

    1. Very true, Pep. Like a lot of things in life, you can sometimes attempt to share your experiences on what to expect with a younger person, but until they face similar circumstances themselves, they won't really necessarily understand what you're saying. But as you said, this is a great time to get that much needed playoff experience, so two years from now they'll know the drill.

  2. I recall saying here at the start of the season that I thought the Leafs would likely fall just short of the playoffs, but I hoped they would make it, just to gain some needed experience for the future. Well, I am so happy that they did squeak in this year! As excited as I was for all the young players developing at the NHL level this year, I never could have imagined the mark they would leave. This is, bar none, the biggest impact a team has ever felt from its collective rookies in NHL history. I am very happy that Babcock showed them the faith and turned them loose, his past history in Detroit lent to the philosophy of allowing prospects to almost over-ripen in the AHL before bringing them up.

    Intriguing as this year has been, there have been telltale signs of a young club still, mostly in that they have struggled to finish games, blowing so many significant leads. They had improved some in that, but of course they reminded us of this propensity just yesterday in their season finale, and now have to face the Capitals in the playoffs.

    So on to that, I have no illusion of the Leafs pulling off a stunner and advancing to the second round. I was hoping for a team a little bit less dominant though, a team they can compete with and push to at least six games. Maybe they will surprise us again, who knows, but my hopes are not up for that. They are the same as they were at the start of the season. Get in to the playoffs, watch a veteran team grind the way they do, and learn some valuable lessons about NHL playoff hockey for the future. They will most definitely be back there to compete for real next year.

    1. We're on the same page, Pete.

      We all remember the often told story about the 1983 playoffs between the Oilers and defending three-time champion Islanders. Edmonton of course had Gretzky, Messier, Fuhr, Coffey et al, and were young, skilled and fast. The Isles dispatched them on the way to winning their fourth Cup- a remarkable run. Afterwards, some of the young Oilers walked by the Isles' dressing room and saw a number of battered hockey warriors not celebrating but nursing their wounds. It resonated with them, as the story goes, that it would take more than they had given to get to that championship level. But they went on to win several Cups between 1984 and 1990. Lesson learned.

      So will the Leafs have to lose some playoff series to "learn" that lesson? Will Babcock forewarning them be enough? We'll see. Thanks Pete.

  3. I think it's safe to say that none of us saw the Leafs in the playoffs this year. The rookies outperformed at a level that hasn't happened on a Leaf team in our lifetime. So, it's been a thrill! As one who has had a glass half-full/half-empty for years, I topped it off this year and drank a toast to the team at the end of the season. I had tears in my eyes when Matthews potted that empty-netter on Saturday night - it seemed so hard fought for and so well-deserved.
    But I think it's also safe to say that none of us seriously think the Leafs will get past the Caps. Although we've come a long way this year, the game against the Caps last week showed how far we have to go. And I don't just mean in player development - I also mean in upgrading the roster. I have no doubt this will happen over the next few years, and that we'll be viable contenders two years from now. And, as many are saying, there's only one way to get valuable playoff experience, and that's play in them!
    For me, the most heartening aspect of this year is that we finally felt like a "team", and not just a collection of players who'd happened to show up at the rink at the same time. Players who seemed to know where other players would be, players who passed with a purpose, players who covered for each other. I credit Babcock for this - and expect it will only grow as the core players evolve with each other.
    I've referred to myself as a "long-suffering Leaf fan" for many years. It looks like I'll be removing that adjective very soon!

  4. Gerund O', your reference to team and not just a bunch of guys "who show up at the rink at the same time" is perfect. The Leafs have had some talented players over the years while they were hit and miss -and mostly missing the playoffs- but this year proved to be different. They were indeed a team. And as you suggest, as they continue to build the roster, they may well be a team that is a legitimate contender for a championship for years to come. Keep your glass at hand, Gerund!

  5. This playoffs (ya... We finally get to say it like it can happen again and again!) is clearly an opportunity to train, build and grow a young team that has overachieved in a protected bubble all year.

    Having consoled myself with watching the Marlies last year, I felt this could be a bubble team, IF everything lined up as optimistically as I had hoped. In many ways, this year was even better than I dared to hope.

    I have been so impressed by the patient 'dangling the carrot' approach that has incrementally increased the challenges and expectancy in a positive learning context. In the clear absence of 'panic' amongst the Leaf brain trust, I found comfort that the plan was unfolding as it should. Every time I began to anticipate that the ghosts of Leafs past were about to manifest... something else arose in their stead and swept them all away. I will call it 'hope' and 'observation'...

    This is a young team that expects to win and seems more than willing to learn and apply the lessons to which they are being exposed... who can say that learning and success are impossible partners?

    Whatever happens in the series with Washington, I know that our future will be brighter for the experience... but the kid in me, finds the exhilarating hope of potential underdog success rising up within.

    If nothing else, that alone is reason to call this season a success for me!

    1. You're so right InTimeFor62- this team has worked through the ups and downs of a long NHL season, and the 'overhang' of years of frustration, and kept forging ahead. This, even though they have so many youngsters on the roster. All signs point to better days ahead. The current bonus is that there will be playoff hockey this spring, which should only provide further impetus for growth. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

  6. It appears that noone here or elsewhere thinks Leafs will win this series. Ten out of ten ESPN reporters apparently chose Washington to win. I saw an NHL network bit comparing the two teams' strengths and weaknesses and Washington had the edge in all categories except for coaching in which they had us tied. How there's a tie between a Stanley Cup winner and a guy who never won the Cup and was the other guy's assistant when winning gold in an international championship is beyond me but so be it. The only chance the Leafs have, apparently, rests on the hope that Anderson a la Halak a few years back will stand on his head or in hope that Washington will ‘choke’ as they’ve often done in the playoffs.

    I’ve outlined a number of reasons why I think Leafs can win the Cup this year in my post on your previous thread, all of which remain relevant, and I won’t repeat them here. I’ll just add a few Washington-specific observations which will hopefully lift your spirits. Here they are:

    a) Ovi is +6 this season. What does that mean? - probably that he is neither an offensive threat that he used to be nor reliable defensively. 'Shutting him down' will not be as hard as it appears and the opportunities to victimize him will be there and should be exploited. Nylander, on Kadri's line or Marner or Brown, or even Kapanen, or anyone in the offensive zone with Ovi on the ice, will get an opportunity to score. Ovi is not all that and is not what he used to be. Matthews scored more goals than him this year and has the same amount of points. It doesn't take Lidstrom in his prime to shut down Ovi, or at least not anymore. Just put a defenseman on him or a defensive forward on PP and stay close. That should do it. Play 4-on-4 in their zone and we should be good.

    b) Backstrom is the real threat - he is + 17 on the same line as Ovi and he is a complete two-way centre that does it all much like Crosby and Towes. He is also a guy that can be 'leaned on' physically, however, as he is still not a very physical player and not as fast as he used to be. Lean on Backstrom, throw him off his game. That's what Komarov's and Kadri's job should be.

    c) Washington's depth is not as great as it appears - they do play right and all that and they're mostly big men but beyond the first line of Ovi, Backstrom and Oshi, there are no exceptionally talented guys on that offence. Johansen and Kuznetsov are descent supporting players but they're no match for the talent of our offence, especially the top three wunder-rookies. They are essentially the quality of our second-tier of rookies such as Brown, Hyman, Sosh and Kapanen. They are ahead in their development but they do not stand out. The rest of the roster is composed of aging veterans all of whom have seen better days and all of whom are, again, not better than our depth players. Beagle has nothing on Boyle or Wilson on Martin, or Williams and Winnik on our skilled kids/veterans. What Capitals gain in maturity and size they lose in speed and skill. Get around them and kill them with crisp, quick passes.

  7. d) What Washington has on us is experience and real, structured, big and talented defense. I don't know how much experience counts for and whether it is even an advantage, especially, as is the case with this team, when it is experience of losing in the playoffs. Imagine if all went according to the plan and this Leafs team is, ten years from now, having gone through a few coaches, still without a Cup having made it to the playoffs and been 'contenders' for the past ten years. Imagine how we'd feel and how our players would feel. That's how Washington Capitals feel and that's the kind of experience they have to learn from. Not necessarily an advantage...

    e) Washington's defence is the best in the league and is their real 'superpower'. They are coached by a great defensive coach and they have all the talent in the world. Orpik, Alzner and Karlson are huge and solid, while Niskhanen, Shattenkirk and Orlov, while not being pushovers, are incredibly mobile and dangerous offensively. On this point there is no 'but'. We can hope that the few openings that we are afforded can be exploited by our fast, skilled guys who will have to find a way around, as opposed to through, some of the less mobile of the Washington D-core, or at least, less mobile at the moment when it counts. Shattenkirk is not a shut-down defenseman. Catch him pinching or power through him when an opportunity presents itself. A burst of speed can leave someone like Orpik or Alzner behind. Those moments, those inches are going to count and they will present themselves. If we can exploit them we will score.

    f) Washington is not a hockey town and most people around there do not care about hockey. There is no hype, there is no Maple Leafs Square or 24/7 talk about the club. The Leafs Nation, I suspect, will not only carry our team in Toronto but in Washington as well as it has in so many arenas across North America this season. You will hear 'Go Leafs Go' in Washington on Thursday. It may be time to give our team respect that they earned and quit being scared. We have a really good chance to beat Capitals and we should be more positive as a fan base than we have been.

    Mike Babcock looked visibly upset when he was told by the reporters that no one expects Leafs to win. His initial response was that that was not what he was hearing from fans “walking around Yorkville” but what he said next was what really impressed me and what I think needed to be said. “What are they saying Mike?,” they asked him and this is what he said: “Let’s get going! You’re here. You have an opportunity. I told the young guys today, when you’re a young guy, you think, “oh next year, next year.” Next year never comes in sport. You make good on the opportunities you get. You put everything into it, and if it doesn’t go your way, you regroup. But put everything into it here. We’ve got an opportunity just like they do. We’re going to put our skates on just like they do. We’re going to Washington, and we plan on winning.” Indeed, next year never comes. We are here now and we have a bunch of super-talented kids supported by a few grizzled veterans and a great goalie all of whom have bought the message from the best educator/motivator in the sport fully and completely. It is, after all, a centennial season and, despite no one giving us a chance, we’ve made it to the dance. I think Hockey Gods may finally be smiling on us because we did everything right and we have as much of a chance as any other team that made the playoffs. Washington is not the 1980s Oilers or even the current Blackhawks. They’re just a good American team from down south where nobody cares. We have 100 years of hockey, by far the greatest fan-base in the sport, and, finally, a truly amazing Club led by the best of the best from the ice-makers and equipment guys, through the uber-talented roster, to the Shanahan on top. I think we have a pretty good chance.

    1. I sense Leaf followers may actually be more hopeful and/or optimistic than they are saying, leafdreamer. It's true that the Caps have a poor track record in the playoffs, going back quite a number of years now. (We remember all those good Boudreau-coached teams...) And your analysis is fair, I think, about the Caps' roster.

      Babcock's not wrong, either. In sports, we've all seen it and heard it said many times, that young players sometimes look back later in their career at missed opportunities when good teams they were on didn't win a championship. Sometimes those opportunities do indeed never come around again.

      My sense is Leaf fans respect that the Caps are a good, well-coached squad. But they are not, as you suggest, unbeatable. Whether the Leafs can do it, we'll see. But they'll battle, I'm sure.

    2. I think I'm enough of a Leafdreamer, too, that Michael has hit the nail on the head - I am more optimistic than I'm saying... Being a Leaf fan since '68 [note the year :( ] has a tendency to temper your public enthusiasm!

      The best I could do in my post was ask a rhetorical question ("who can say that learning and success are impossible partners?"), I happen to believe that if the boys keep learning and believing... anything is possible!

      Thanks for being more 'expressive' in your perceptions... because I agree with you... great analysis, BTW!