The Toronto Maple Leafs winning three of their last five games and getting seven out of a possible ten points has put many minds at ease. Those points have put them four points ahead of the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division and Florida has only one game in hand.
Florida has won only once in their last seven games. That has as much to do with Toronto’s current position as anything, and Florida will likely start winning again soon. For Toronto fans to be more comfortable with the Maple Leafs’ playoff position, the team is going to need to be better in a few areas. All it will take is a couple of losses in a row and Toronto could find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff line once again.
Toronto Maple Leafs Winning But Improvement Needed
The most frustrating warning sign that Toronto’s style of play is not sustainable is the inability to hold a lead in the third period. Last Saturday, the Maple Leafs were outshot 16-1 in the third period against the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal tied the game late in that period and won it in overtime.
The night before, the Maple Leafs allowed the Anaheim Ducks to score three times in the third. The Ducks erased a two-goal lead an then another one-goal lead to force overtime. The Maple Leafs did manage to win that game, but it took a John Tavares goal with seven seconds left in the extra frame to do it.
Saturday night, against the lowly Ottawa Senators, the Maple Leafs managed to hold on to a 3-2 lead and score an empty netter to put the game away, but it wasn’t before allowing the Senators to cut a two-goal lead in halfway through the third. The panic on Twitter was sign enough of the lack of confidence fans have in this club’s ability to hold a late-game lead.
The solution lies with the coaching staff. The Maple Leafs have a lot of talent and can often score their way out of trouble, but they also need to be able to manage the puck with the lead. There’s a point where the team doesn’t need any more goals and only needs to prevent goals. That’s not something that comes from great talent alone, it can be taught.
It appears as though Kyle Dubas has solved the back-up goaltending woes that plagued the Maple Leafs for the first half of the season by trading for Jack Campbell. That alone may be enough to propel Toronto into the playoffs, although they’ll be in tough to beat either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Boston Bruins in seven-game series unless Frederik Andersen returns to form.
Andersen’s save percentage this season is .909, that’s a drop from his usual .917 or .918 save percentage. His save percentage in his last five games is .885. He may be playing at less than 100% though. He missed a few games before returning Thursday against the Dallas Stars, a game in which he let in the first shot of each period.
It was interesting that Campbell was given the nod against the Senators in the next game. Perhaps it was to give Andersen a little more rest. Or it may have just been another way for Sheldon Keefe to differentiate himself from Mike Babcock. The Maple Leafs play again tonight against the Buffalo Sabres, the second game of a back-to-back. Babcock would have stubbornly started Andersen against Ottawa and Campbell against Buffalo. I would think after struggling a but against Dallas, Keefe would put Andersen back out right away. Give him a chance to build confidence. Instead, it was Campbell.
There’s no reason to believe Andersen won’t be better than he has. If he doesn’t, the Maple Leafs will struggle. So far, Campbell has been very good for the Maple Leafs. If Andersen does continue to struggle, it’s possible the Maple Leafs could give more games to Campbell. Goaltending is a strange beast. Andersen is the better goalie, but there’s nothing to say Campbell won’t play more games than Andersen down the stretch if he’s playing better at the time and gives Toronto a better chance to win now.
Whoever plays, Toronto needs more consistency from their goaltending to both make the playoffs and stand a chance of advancing into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond.
Toronto’s defencemen haven’t been that bad. They’ve improved since Cody Ceci was hurt, and will improve again when Morgan Rielly returns from injury. However, that may not be till the playoffs though. In the meantime, Jake Muzzin has been solid. Tyson Barrie has been Jake Gardiner 2.0, and the two rookies, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have been steady.
The team’s entire defensive mindset needs an adjustment, especially when holding a late-game lead. That’s not just on the defensemen. The Maple Leafs are a puck possession team filled with players that want to score. They’re good at scoring. The problem is that desire to score can be risky. It’s great to have when trailing in a game, but not as much with the lead. Often players are making a play they feel is the best play that can lead to a goal. That’s not always the best decision. It’s easier to protect the puck if scoring a goal isn’t the primary objective.
Room To Add
Having defencemen that are more focused on the offensive side of the game only exasperates that problem. Luckily, the Maple Leafs find themselves with cap room to spend on adding another defenseman. It’s a safe assumption Ceci and Andreas Johnsson are out for the season. Reilly may or may not be back before the playoffs. Those players free up cap space and can still return for the playoffs where the salary cap is no longer a factor.
It remains to be seen just how much money Dubas will have to play with. Whomever he brings to the team will cost assets to acquire as well, but the safe bet is on Dubas adding someone of note to the blueline. At the very least, he’ll be able to add depth and probably experience, which any young team will benefit from.
Toronto Maple Leafs Winning Will Get Harder
The Maple Leafs have a roster full of All-Star calibre players. Their struggles have existed all season long. They’re going to beat lesser teams consistently. It will probably be enough to make the playoffs, but winning will come harder. Ottawa out-worked the Maple Leafs at times last night, but Toronto’s talent was able to overcome those issues.
It won’t be the same once the playoffs start. Hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs winning a playoff round will not last long if teams like Boston or Tampa Bay are outworking them consistently in a seven-game series. The Maple Leafs won’t be able to score their way out of trouble in the playoffs because Boston and Tampa Bay will just score right back.