The Toronto Maple Leafs lost their last game of the regular season and as punishment get to face the best team in the league, the Washington Capitals, in the first round of the NHL playoffs. It certainly isn’t the best situation to be in, but funny enough, hasn’t dampened the spirits of most Leaf fans. That is why they celebrated and applauded this team at the end of that loss. Even your typical bitter and jaded Leaf fans (and honestly, aren’t all Maple Leaf fans bitter and jaded) realize that the bigger picture of making it to the playoffs has already far exceeded any possible expectations of this season. Facing any opponent in the playoffs is just icing on the cake, even if that team is this years President’s Trophy winner.
There are many analysts out there who have broken down and examined this matchup by the numbers. Truth be told, there is very good reason that Washington finished the season with 118 points and the Maple Leafs finished with only 95. Quite simply, the Capitals are a much better team. Leaf fans need to face the fact that the likelihood of the Leafs winning a game, let alone the series are incredibly low. Having said that though, at the beginning of the year the chances of the Maple Leafs competing for a playoff spot let alone making it into the playoffs was incredibly low too and look how that turned out. So what is being said at the moment is…
Now a far better course of action to undertake is to determine what needs to go right for the Leafs to have a chance against a far better opponent. Before we get into specifics, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. For the buds to have any chance whatsoever, goaltending and defence have to follow the “bend but not break” credo. Washington’s lineup top to bottom is strong offensively and they will get plenty of chances. In fact, it may seem the ice is tilted in their favour as the puck will be in the Leafs zone a lot. The young Maple Leafs need to learn how withstand that pressure and not crumble beneath it. Apart from that there are two key battles the Leafs will need to win to have any chance.
This isn’t a hugely impossible task, as throughout the year the Maple Leafs have done extremely well with their power play and their penalty killing. The issue is that Washington is just as good. Washington is 4th in the league on the power play (Leafs are second) and on the penalty kill the Caps are ranked 7th and Toronto 10th. Very simply put the Maple Leafs don’t have to be fantastic on specialty teams, they just need to make sure they are much better than the Capitals.
Easier said than done of course, but it is certainly possible. This doesn’t only mean stopping Washington’s power play, which is ridiculously talented with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, it means more importantly not taking penalties to begin with. Toronto will have to play a very disciplined style of hockey that can be quite difficult for a rookie-laden team, but not necessarily a Mike Babcock rookie-laden team. Babcock has done well to prepare this team for big games and in fact during the Winter Classic against Detroit he mentioned that in special games like this, a team gets into trouble when a single player tries to do too much. If everyone just focus’ on their own responsibility, the Maple Leafs will give Washington something to think about it.
Playing with Pressure
In the past 10 seasons the Washington Capitals have had 6 seasons where they have earned more than 100 pts and that includes winning the Presidents Cup 3 times. The season success however has not translated into playoff success as they have yet to make it to the Conference Finals in all that time, let alone the Stanley Cup Final. There is an incredible amount of pressure on them to succeed this year again and to shed the playoff choke label hung around their necks.
If the Leafs can create any kind of doubt in the minds of the Capitals, that choke label will feel more and more like a noose. The Capitals will do everything they can to rattle the young buds, by removing the time and space that Toronto is used to having. If however, the Leafs can play loose with that “nothing to lose” attitude they may very well be able to increase the pressure and tighten that noose even more. If, by some incredible force of will they can win one game at the Verizon Centre then is it so hard to imagine that the Washington Capitals may have yet another playoff meltdown?
Highly improbable, but not impossible.
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