What the Leafs can Learn from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Matt Stephen
May 12 2012 10:55AM

 

Everyone’s noticed that these playoffs have been atypical so far, with upsets becoming the rule rather than the exception. For those teams that still have life in their seasons after beating out the heavily favoured (or unexpectedly tenacious) there’s been one common thread– they play D and they have a goalie.

The five teams remaining in the playoffs include two of the Vezina Trophy candidate goalies, plus Pekka Rinne, not so shabby himself. The old adage has proven true again – defence wins championships. The Leafs didn’t play much of it this year and didn’t have a goalie who was reliably able to stop dump-ins from the blue line… Burke, Carlyle, Rogers Communications INC. and Bell Media, listen up.

What the Leafs can learn about defence

What the Leafs did:

  • Scored on 264 times this season, the second-most of any team.
  • BUT, finished the season 10th best in goals for
  • Were speedy and offensively driven under Ron Wilson
  • Of the 8 teams that made it to Round Two only two of those teams scored more goals than the Leafs in the regular season, but all had played better defence.
  • No. 1 D-man D. Phaneuf finished the year with the most ice time of any Leaf player and one of the worst plus/minus with a minus 10

What The Winners Did:

Every team that remains in these playoffs save the Washington Capitals finished the year among the top ten in fewest goals allowed. The teams that remain in these playoffs are still alive because they play safe, shutdown defence and have goalies to back them up. In these playoffs there has been 42 one-goal game wins, 62% of all games played so far.

In fact, the Capitals have yet to win a post-season contest by more than one goal. Twenty-three of the 26 games the Capitals and Rangers have played this post-season have been decided by a single goal. They’ve all been incredibly close games thanks to all-around great defence.

While none of the three Norris Trophy candidates remain in the playoffs, the defence-first approach is one all of these teams take. The most offensively-minded club still in the playoffs is, ironically, the New Jersey Devils, whose name was synonymous with the trap-style of defence that all the other teams are now employing. The Devils scored the most regular season goals of any of the remaining playoff teams, finishing 11th in the league in GF – that’s right, behind the Leafs, who therefore out-scored every remaining playoff team in the regular season.

What the Caps did: Replaced their offensively-minded coach with one that bores his way to success with a brand of hockey using a 1-4 system and O-bench-kin tactics. The Caps are riding the hot hand of Braden Holtby throughout these playoffs, but while the 22-year-old goalie has been good, he has had a lot of help in front of him. The Caps have blocked 293 shots, the most in these playoffs and 45 more than their opponents the Rangers, fearless shot blockers themselves. Washington also boasts the most takeaways in the playoffs and had the most in the regular season of the teams still fighting.

What the Rangers did: Allowed the fewest goals-against in the Eastern Conference regular season. They had a Vezina-nominated goaltender with them the whole way and two D-men with a plus/minus over +20, but a middling number of goals-for.The Blue Shirts also don’t mind wearing a puck or two, finishing fourth in that department in the regular season.

What the Kings did: Allowed the fewest goals of any team, again with the help of a Vezina-nominated goalie, plus again a team playing almost nothing but defence in front of him. The Kings finished the season out in 8th place, but they did it by scoring fewer goals than the Columbus Blue Jackets. Only one team scored less than the Kings, now a Stanley Cup front runner.

What the Coyotes did: The name you’ll never forget: Mike Smith. 1.77 goals-against average, two shutouts, fewest goals against of any goalie active in the playoffs. ‘Nuff said.

New Jersey Devils: When the New Jersey Devils are the most offensively minded team remaining in the playoffs, it’s clear there’s a trend. Martin Brodeur has the potential to play lights-out and the team’s only minus player is Ilya Kovalchuk, so you know the rest of the team is doing its job to make up for him defensively. Even as the playoffs’ strongest offensive threat, the Devils have still had half of their games determined by just one goal.

If the Leafs are still looking to emulate the structure of a winning franchise, they might do better to turn away from Boston Bruins-style truculence. The team could aim to adopt a style more like the winners in these playoffs – bore your opponent into submission, your fans will thank you in the end.

It’s worth a shot, at least. 1-4 4ever!

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Matt Stephen is a long-suffering Leafs fan writing from the belly of the beast. He's a graduate of the Professional Writing program at York University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattyStephen or at a safe distance on any of Toronto's streets or alleyways.
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#1 Kent Wilson
May 12 2012, 11:16AM
Trash it!
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No question the Leafs have to get better at preventing goals. I would council against trying to chase particular models or game types because they were successful in the post-season however. Mostly because you'll end up chasing your tail.

The "model" changes every year depending on who wins. Some finals have featured mostly offensive teams, others mostly defensive. The Red Wings have won a lot of playoff games post-lock-out, but have never been called tough. The Bruins apparently bullied their way to a championship last year in contrast. etc etc.

It changes because the post-season is weighted lottery and weird stuff happens all the time. To even win a round you need to be good in some areas, but you also need the bounces to go your way.

In the end, the best bet is to have as good a team as possible - meaning good at both ends of the rink.

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