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SIMMONS: Can the Maple Leafs bury their very own previous within the playoffs?


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There has by no means been a Maple Leafs season like this one. Not with this many factors. Not with this many wins. Not with a 60-goal scorer of their lineup. Not with a coach whose regular-season numbers trump anybody who has ever coached right here earlier than.

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Not with this a lot on the road.

The Leafs start a run on the Stanley Cup — which sounds type of humorous contemplating the circumstances – with fairly probably the perfect Toronto crew assembled submit Authentic Six. They start playoffs on Monday not counting their wins or taking inventory of their multitude of accomplishments, however all of this taking place with a backdrop of doubt, hope and cynicism.

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That may be a reasonably loopy juxtaposition of twists and turns, this real-life byplay between the Leafs and the playoffs. It’s not really a Stanley Cup run — that comes later if it comes in any respect — it’s a primary spherical of the playoffs run. A combat with demons. A spot they haven’t been seemingly for hundreds of years, or at the very least 18 years, give or take per week.

Their factors now, actually don’t imply something. House ice benefit, actually, doesn’t essentially imply something. They’re first within the NHL on the facility play, seventh-best on penalty kill — higher on each particular groups than both of their doable first-round opponents. All the pieces seemingly goes their means.

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All the pieces however historical past.

All the pieces however the cloud of uncertainty that comes from even the most important and most optimistic of Maple Leafs followers.

This yr, although, there are causes to consider, perhaps greater than there have been previously, which when piled up seems to be like playoff loss after playoff loss within the Brendan Shanahan period. The numbers aren’t actually that straightforward.

They made the playoffs and misplaced when Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander performed their first NHL seasons collectively. However they performed terrific hockey towards a greater, extra skilled Washington Capitals crew. That was a loss to a membership 23-points higher — a loss that flipped on some extra time outcomes that didn’t go Toronto’s means.

Forgotten now over time — how nice a starting that was for the brand new constructing Leafs.

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The following two seasons they performed the Boston Bruins, a crew forward of them within the standings. In each years, they went to Sport 7. In each years, Nazem Kadri, a big Leafs participant, wound up foolishly suspended. Within the first sequence, the higher crew received. Within the second sequence, the Leafs had the chance to win Spherical 1 at dwelling in Sport 6 and weren’t capable of meet the playoff necessities. However when the movie was damaged down on the finish of the second straight Sport 7 defeat, the Leafs decided they had been the higher crew within the sequence.

They only didn’t get a greater consequence.

That was the final time they might say that in a playoff sequence. Within the first COVID season with NHL playoffs in the summertime, the Leafs didn’t compete laborious sufficient, didn’t play properly sufficient, to beat a reasonably atypical Columbus Blue Jackets crew. And the actual misplaced alternative, the one which hurts to at the present time, is the first-round loss to Montreal a yr in the past, up 3-1, home-ice benefit, after which the membership seemingly didn’t present up for Video games 5-6-and-7.

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Montreal went on to go to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Leafs spent the following 12 months questioning – what the hell?

Now it’s time to start anew, after two sequence they deserved higher in, two sequence they outright misplaced and one wherein they weren’t prepared for an upper-echelon crew, although they stretched the Bruins to seven video games in 2018.

Why is that this Leafs crew completely different from others previously? That may be seen and quantified on paper — however playoffs are their very own animal. The sport modifications. The tempo modifications. The stress modifications. Each mistake, each unfastened puck battle, each giveaway is amplified.

So what makes these Leafs extra succesful at present?

Start with the primary line. The Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner-Michael Bunting line just isn’t the perfect line within the NHL. It’s in all probability second finest to the Calgary trio of Elias Lindholm-Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk.

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The Matthews line is the type of line nobody needs to match up towards. Matthews is the premier purpose scorer in hockey at present. Marner is likely one of the premier playmakers from the wing. Bunting, the obvious rookie, has slot in properly with the celebrities and has grown his sport all through his first full NHL season.

There isn’t an equal line to the Matthews trio within the Japanese Convention — however the questions on these three, and principally two, can be obvious from Monday on. Marner didn’t rating in final yr’s playoffs or the yr earlier than that one. Matthews had one purpose towards Montreal. Each time both of them hit a brand new mark as this splendid season went on – the questions from the surface adopted nearly instantly.

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“I’ll believe it when I see it in the playoffs”.

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That thought is sort of common in Leafs Nation.

Successful the Rocket Richard Trophy is beautiful — but when Matthews doesn’t rating within the first spherical, what does the award actually imply? Scoring extra factors per sport than any Leafs winger within the fashionable period was positive for Marner, however once more, if he doesn’t produce what do all these regular-season accomplishments actually imply?

Tampa Bay received the Stanley Cup the previous two seasons. Its star ahead Nikita Kucherov had 66 playoff factors in these two Cup runs. Brayden Level had 56. These are the type of totals anticipated of stars within the post-season. The Leafs have by no means had that from anybody since Doug Gilmour in 1994.

The second line by itself is a query for Toronto, and the composition of the road will definitely change all through the playoffs, nevertheless lengthy they final. John Tavares will play centre, perhaps with William
Nylander, perhaps with out him.

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Individually, Tavares and Nylander are positive gamers. Collectively, not at all times. Nylander was on the ice for probably the most targets towards at even energy than any Leafs ahead and Tavares was proper behind him. If the Matthews line goes to be checked – and it actually would be the consideration of their opponent – then Tavares and Nylander and whomever else performs with that group can be referred to as as much as rating and perhaps extra importantly, to not get scored towards.

The actual distinction on this Leafs crew, in comparison with groups of the previous, and when put next with latest championship groups, is the third line that Sheldon Keefe likes to make use of. He loves the road that has David Kampf centring the rising speedy wingers Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev. They’re the type of third strains NHL groups hate enjoying towards. They will play offence, they will play defence, they will kill penalties.

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The final two seasons, the Lightning received the Cup and its third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman proved to be a difference-maker for the champions. When Washington received the Cup, Lars Eller centring a 3rd line, was an enormous issue. When Chicago received its first two Stanley Cups, previous to its third, David Bolland centred the third line and in 2013 scored the Stanley Cup-winning purpose.

The Leafs haven’t had this type of line earlier than. Haven’t had a lineup with this many alternative seems to be and potentialities.

Lots will deal with coach Keefe, whose regular-season numbers are the best in Leafs historical past. Neither Pat Quinn nor Pat Burns had a successful proportion wherever close to Keefe’s profession mark of .677, coming off a season of .698 heading into Friday evening. However he has to put on the losses to Columbus and Montreal: These groups didn’t meet expectations in these rounds. These groups got here up small when it mattered most. That’s clearly a participant subject, but additionally a administration subject, a training subject.

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That is the perfect crew Keefe has had and the hardest first-round opponent he could have confronted. However in his time as Toronto coach, the Leafs have added Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Ilya Lyubushkin on defence together with draft picks Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin; they’ve added and helped develop, Bunting, Alex Kerfoot, Ondrej Kase, Kampf, Mikheyev, Engvall, Colin Blackwell, Wayne Simmonds and goaltender Jack Campbell.

They’ve improved offensively, improved defensively, improved on particular groups. All of these being regular-season statistics.

It at all times comes again to that. What occurs now? Can this Leafs crew bury its previous? That is the deepest and strongest the Leafs have ever been. That doesn’t matter now: It’s playoff time.

ssimmons@postmedia.com
twitter.com/simmonssteve

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