After about one third of this season was in the books, I wrote here that while the bounces had clearly gone Toronto's way to start the season, it was tough to say if there would be enough time for them to fall way down the standings. Mainly, the goaltending looked strong and I figured if it could stay that way then the Leafs would drop a bit and still be floating around eighth down the stretch. A steal here, a steal there, and they could get in.
Well, what happened was a bit different. Apart from a little skid in March, the Leafs ripped off a ton of wins and have managed to lock up a playoff spot with a full week left to play.
No doubt the goaltending has been an enormous part of that, but the way the puck is finding the back of the net at the other end is what has this team off the bubble and in the thick of a race for fourth place. The Leafs are still shooting the lights out, basically.
After the hot start, I figured the combination of goaltending and eventual returns of Lupul and Gardiner (and even a possible Tim Connolly appearance) could soften the blow of percentages coming back to have their way with Toronto. Lupul turned in to some sort of magician that scores every time he steps on the ice, toying with the percentages even more, but Gardiner hasn't factored in much. Either way, the Leafs didn't cling on, they just kept going.
So, what to expect from the playoffs? Are the Leafs going to get smashed in the first round like all the rival fans would have us believe? I've read a few little comments like "enjoy the PDO regression in the first round" and "I think the Leafs' luck will run out when the playoffs start." I'm not sure that's how luck works. It's kind of like flipping heads three times in a row and then saying you're "due" for tails the next time. Things are due to even out over time, but we can't, with any certainty, say that this will happen as soon as the playoffs start.
In 2010 the Canadiens somehow managed to nab a playoff spot with a garbage team. After 82 games of scraping by with solid goaltending and managing to squeeze in to eighth, surely their luck was due to run out, right?
In a window as small as seven games against the same opponent, it's tough to draw a line and say "here's where you'll stop scoring." It sounds cliché, but this really is "one game at a time" territory. The Leafs aren't a good puck-possession team, the kind that usually does well in the playoffs (or in general), but last year in the first round the better puck possession clubs won only 3 of the eight series'. Goaltenders will get hot, powerplays will start clicking, and away we go. It's the playoffs.
Of course, a lot depends on who you draw in the first round. I believe that some teams can match up well with others, and apart from facing the heavy favorites like the Penguins and Bruins, I don't see the Leafs as a big underdog to any of the other Eastern playoff teams. Montreal, the most likely first round opponent, are a better team than the Leafs by a lot of measures, but in a race for four wins they're no Everest. I think it would be a good series, and would likely go to the wire.
With all that said, I wish I had more faith in Randy Carlyle. I think the Leafs can win a series in the playoffs, but I'd feel a lot better about it if he would ice the best lineup possible. He will not.
Some of us fans and bloggers have talked about the idea of Carlyle finally sitting down the fighters in the playoffs because they're likely to go without dancing partners. I'd love for this to be the case, but I'll believe it when I see it.
All in all, I think this team is good enough to at least have a good showing in the first round and give us an exciting series. The goaltending alone should be enough to make the games interesting, and while we know the defence is still an area of weakness, it would be nice to see Phaneuf and Gunnarsson given somewhat of a break here in the next week before the big dance gets underway. Whether that's reduced minutes or a couple of maintenance days, it would be well-deserved for Phaneuf, who's shouldered the load of minutes all season, and Gunnarsson who has battled a nagging injury.
That may be tough since the Leafs are still looking to improve their playoff seeding (also known as "avoiding the Bruins at all costs") but once the playoffs start, these guys will basically play the entire game, especially once you get in to elimination scenarios and such.
We'll have to wait to get a clearer picture in the next week of what, if any, measures Carlyle will take to prepare this club and have everyone as close to 100% as possible.
I won't lie, this is all very exciting to write about.