So last week I went all in on the Leafs beating the Blue Jackets in their upcoming qualifying series. And I still am. While the Blue Jackets have the advantage defensively, I think a lot of that relies on an extremely effective system put in place by John Tortorella to make up for the losses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, something that could take some time to get used to after nearly five months off.
And while the Leafs have a habit of not being able to perform in the playoffs, we haven’t seen how they’ll perform in a playoff situation under Sheldon Keefe, although they did have good performances against Florida and Tampa Bay right before the season was paused.
There are even some analytical models that have them as the heavy favourites in the series (although there are also plenty that have it as insanely close but the Leafs coming out on top):
2020 NHL qualifying round preview: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets
— dom luszczyszyn (@domluszczyszyn) July 30, 2020
So, now you’re thinking, why am I so confident that the Leafs will win the series?
And the answer is absolutely not.
While this may be the first time the Leafs have had an advantage going into a series, we’re forgetting that this is also the Leafs. The number of times this team has had an opportunity to show progress and completely dropped the ball is too many to count for me, and I’ve only been closely following the team for 9 years.
There were many things this season that has given fans a reason to be nervous about the Leafs going into these playoffs, so let’s dive in.
Probably the biggest issue with the Leafs this season (and part of the reason why they’re here and not playing in the round robin to determine seeding) is their inconsistency throughout the season, especially in the last couple months.
We probably should’ve predicted 2020 turning into the mess that it did because it was an inconsistent mess for the Leafs. Riding an 11-1-1 streak into a game against the Oilers, they lost five of their next six before the All-Star break, including an ugly 8-4 loss in an important game against the Panthers. They would then win three straight, only to go 3-3-1 right after that.
Then it gets really bad. They would only lose two straight, but it was an embarrassing 5-2 loss to the Sabres, followed by an even more embarrassing 5-2 loss to the Penguins. But, they would respond with one of their best games of the season, a 4-0 win against the Pens. Everything’s fixed, right?
False, we would then lose the next game 6-3 against the Carolina Hurricanes, who had David Ayres in net for half the game to secure the win, giving the Leafs an even more embarrassing loss than before. Could it get any worse?
Well, the Leafs responded with three excellent wins against the Lightning, Panthers, and Canucks. Not only were they great wins, but the Leafs also managed to really separate themselves from the Panthers for that third Atlantic division spot. And they were about to go on the California road trip, featuring three teams contending for a lottery. The Panthers will be done after this, right?
They got swept. Not only did they get swept, they scored three goals in those three games, with two of those games being against Martin Jones and a well past his prime Jonathan Quick.
But not all hope was lost, as the Leafs would end the season with another solid win over the Lightning, this time by a score of 2-1.
See, wasn’t that an adventure? The Leafs got new legs under Keefe with a 15-4-1 start, but after that, it was an inconsistent mess. Every time they seemed to show signs of being a team capable of winning a Cup, they’d follow that up with looking like a lottery team.
And going into a three to five game series, it’s easy to believe that whichever team shows up in Game 1 will probably stick around for the entire series, so it really depends on which team shows up as to how they do against the Blue Jackets. They showed last night that if you don’t show up against the Blue Jackets, they’ll still punish you, even if you’re a strong team like the Bruins, so the Leafs better be wide awake on Sunday.
One of the biggest reasons for the Leafs’ inconsistency this year was the play of Frederik Andersen. The epitome of consistency going into the season, Andersen was anything but for the Leafs this season, as he saw a significant drop off in his play this season.
While his first season with the Leafs was easily his best, he’d always been good to great for the Leafs in his first three years, always good enough to give his team the win. But this season has been a staggering difference, as he has been nowhere near his usual self.
But it wasn’t always bad this season. Much like the rest of the team, his struggles really only started in the second half. Here’s a look at his numbers up until Dec. 31st, 2019, and then his numbers after Jan. 1st, 2020, and where they rank in the league amongst goalies. The first half rankings are based on a 20 game minimum for goalies (so a pool of 35 goalies), while the second half has a 15 game minimum since there were fewer games (so a pool of 31 goalies).
Andersen went from being a top 10 goalie to arguably the worst goalie in the league between halves, and it was a huge reason why the Leafs were inconsistent over that stretch. In 2020, the Leafs were driving play and scoring chances pretty well with a 50.31% 5v5 CF% and a 52.69% 5v5 xGF%, and had a pretty average 5v5 shooting% at 8.79%, but had the league worst 5v5 save percentage at 90.65%.
Those aren’t the only causes for concern, as there’s also Andersen’s well known poor play after a long offseason (also known as October Freddie) that could come into effect with the Leafs coming into this series after almost five months off. Since joining the Leafs, Andersen has had a combined .900 save percentage in all four October’s, far from starting goalie quality.
But, as far as his performance in the playoffs goes, he’s not been as bad as his reputation may lead on. He has a career .915% in the playoffs, and his only truly bad playoff performance was his 2018 series against the Bruins, as he had a .896% save percentage, including .875, .400, .857, and .829 in the four losses. He was strong in the wins, but wasn’t much help when they lost.
Andersen looked fine in the preseason game against the Habs, which helps the concern, but I’m not going to say he’s ready until I see him in playoff action. The whole series will probably waver on whichever Freddie shows up.
They’re the Leafs
I mean, this one is pretty self explanatory. I’ve recently been watching a show called Milo Murphy’s Law, where the main character Milo deals with the curse of Murphy’s Law, where anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, usually causing lots of destruction just purely by being there. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the Milo Murphy of hockey.
Forget their entire history, since I started following the team in 2011, I’ve had to deal with:
-Getting blown out by the Habs in Sundin’s jersey honouring
-The eighteen wheeler driving off a cliff
-The 2013 Game 7 collapse against the Bruins
-Losing 12 of their final 14 in 2013-14 to go from a surefire playoff spot to drafting 8th
-The 9-2 loss to Nashville
-Not being able to score for the second half of 2014-15
-Having the highest odds after three lottery balls to get Connor McDavid
-The countless blown leads in 2016-17
-The 2018 Game 7 collapse against the Bruins
-Not even showing up to the 2019 Game 7
Need I go on.
The Leafs have a habit of turning an easy win situation into the worst case scenario. It’s in their blood. There’s a reason why when it came out that the Leafs are the favourites in the series, every Leafs fan cried in pain. Because they know what’s about to happen. Deep down, we know they’ll find a way to mess this up, and we’ll have to carry on with our miserable lives and hope that maybe next year will be the year, knowing damn well that that won’t happen.
The Leafs may be the favourites in the series, and they might be the better team, but that won’t stop the Leafs from eliminating the Leafs from the playoffs.
And no, that wasn’t a typo.