As the NHL season winds down, the push for the playoffs is on as teams prepare to contend for the most treasured trophy in hockey: Lord Stanley’s Cup. After 74 games played, the Toronto Maple Leafs have solidified their position as the third seed in the Atlantic Division, meaning they will likely face the Boston Bruins in the first round.
It was nearly five years ago when the Phil Kessel-led Maple Leafs carried an infamous 4–1 lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarter finals against the Boston Bruins only to see the Bruins claw their way back and eventually win the series in overtime. A lot has changed since then, and the Leafs are looking less like underdogs this time around.
Since the start of the 2016–2017 season, the Leafs have owned the Bruins, sporting a 7-2 record against them over that stretch. While the Bruins have put together an impressive campaign this season, the Leafs may have the upper hand come playoff time. The Leafs have been historically impressive in their own right: they are on pace to surpass their franchise records of 103 points and 45 wins. That being said, there are still a few things that must fall into place if the Leafs are going to make a run in this year’s playoffs.
First of all, Toronto must enter the playoffs with a clean bill of health. While the Leafs were the second healthiest team in the league last year, they have been bitten by the injury bug as of late. Auston Matthews has been plagued by numerous ailments over the course of the season; the Leafs’ star centre has missed 10 games and just returned from a recent shoulder injury. If Matthews is able to heal up and enter the playoffs in good health, it will provide a huge boost to the Leafs.
Another key player to keep an eye on is netminder Frederik Andersen. The Great Dane has put up a .918 save percentage while facing more shots than any other goalie in the league and featuring in a whopping 60 games thus far. The concern here is not Andersen’s injury history, but rather the potential for injury or at least fatigue due to his incredibly high workload.
The other obstacle standing in the way of the Leafs’ potential cup run is, of course, the opposition, and the Leafs’ path seems to be a treacherous one. Should the Leafs defeat the Bruins in the first round, they will likely face the Atlantic division champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. If the Leafs can pull off the second round upset, they will then likely see the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Should the Leafs somehow surpass these three foes, they will then take on the best of the West: the Predators, Jets, and Golden Knights are the top contenders here, and all of them have posted better seasons than Toronto.
All things considered, it would be a stretch to expect the Leafs to contend for the cup this year: they are a little too inexperienced and inconsistent, and there are simply too many strong contenders standing in their way. However, this does not mean that expectations are nonexistent in Toronto. Having added Thomas Plekanec at the trade deadline to solidify their depth at centre, the Leafs are certainly hoping to win at least a series or two. While I wouldn’t urge fans to plan the parade just yet, the organization appears to be headed in the right direction. Some may even say that it’s only a matter of time before the Maple Leafs return to glory.