“This is where we’re supposed to be right here. This is where you do it. You can exercise so many f—in’ demons and they got demons in their heads, they got them in the car, they got ’em under the f—in’ beds. Every where they turn there’s a f—in’ demon. The biggest obstacle this team has right now is themselves.”
This is what assistant coach Paul MacLean said between Game 6 and 7 of the Leafs’ first-round matchup against the Canadiens that was captured in the “All or Nothing” documentary. We already know how the story ended and rewatching it won’t spur a different outcome, but what he said still holds weight as the team gets set for another playoff push in 2022.
Heading into tonight’s matchup against the Jets, Moneypuck has Toronto at a 100% chance of making the postseason, meaning they are basically in. The Eastern Conference playoff combatants have pretty much been determined with the only thing remaining being the matchups themselves. Meaning that the Leafs’ opponent in the first round should they start tomorrow would be the Lightning.
These next few weeks will no doubt play a large factor in how the playoff picture shakes up and this could in many different ways. Toronto could still very much finish atop the Atlantic Division or find themselves in one of the Wild Card spots by the time the season wraps up on April 29th and the sheer unpredictability of where they will land in the standings will surely be intriguing to watch.
Once the second season does kick off, the Leafs could very well hold their own against any one of the divisional rivals or the opponents in the Metropolitan Division. But if they want to get anywhere this spring, they must first overcome their biggest obstacle: themselves.
Again, IMO the Leafs' roster as it stands is good enough to do as much damage as almost any top tier team. If the big dogs do their job, we'll be OK. If they don't, there was no deadline piece they could have acquired today that would save them from themselves.
— Active Stick (@TheOakLeafs) March 21, 2022
Throughout this season, we have seen what this current iteration of the Leafs is capable of when they are at their best. We have also seen their bad habits creep up on them and see valuable points slip away as a result. Only the Leafs can pull off impressive wins against the likes of the Panthers, Bruins, Hurricanes, Avalanche, and Wild while also putting up stinkers against basement dwellers like the Canadiens, Coyotes, and Sabres in the same campaign. While it is true that other teams within the upper echelon of the Atlantic Division have had similar incidents (hockey has a lot of luck involved after all), it is the way the Leafs have lost those games that show how they can stand in their way at times.
Take for instance their match-up against Arizona on March 10th. In that game, the Leafs quickly fell behind 2-0 after a lapse in defensive structure in combination with subpar goaltending from Petr Mrazek forced the team to play from behind. The reason for that was due to some lackadaisical play in the opening five minutes. While they were able to salvage a point out of that game following a controversial overtime loss, it was only because they ramped up the intensity in the third period once Erik Kallgren took over once the score was 4-1.
While the circumstances of the games were different, a similar trend occurred in their last two matchups against Buffalo and Montreal, where they appeared to be in control early on but took their foot off the gas pedal long enough that the respective teams took full advantage. It has no doubt been frustrating to watch a team constantly put up uninspiring play when facing weaker competition, especially when they are followed up by strong showings against the top teams in the league.
This same logic has applied in the last two postseason runs where the Leafs were given what seemed like easier matchups to improve their chances at a deeper run. Whether it be due to on-ice arrogance, injury troubles, or tactical mishaps, the Blue Jackets and Canadiens took the opportunities that Toronto gifted them and made them pay the price. The latter series was especially aggravating since the Leafs put themselves in the driver’s seat by a 3-1 series lead, but that was squandered embarrassingly and left many wondering whether the current iteration would ever find postseason success.
It has now been 10 months since the Leafs blew that lead and they are once again well on track to make the playoffs for a sixth straight year. Unlike in the previous five appearances, there is a noticeable sense of dread in the team’s chances of snapping the series-win drought of 18 years.
There have been moments where the Leafs have shown they can hold their own against the NHL’s elite. Big wins against the playoff-bound teams in the Atlantic, Carolina, Colorado, and Minnesota provide some hope that Toronto at least has a shot in any matchup. Heading into tonight’s game against the Jets, the Leafs were able to beat the Panthers and Bruins in convincing fashion by not only playing up to their up-tempo offence but also by playing with a physical edge to a degree not seen since this new era began in 2016.
It is no doubt encouraging for the Buds to be playing this way in 2022, but all of this will be for naught if these results don’t carry over into the postseason.
Regardless of where they land once the playoffs begin in May, the Leafs are going to be in for a tough outing. And this is after the last two appearances where their opponent was supposedly at a disadvantage (which we all know how they turned out). Six years of coming up short in spectacular fashion, showing minimal progress in the postseason, and the looming threat of a major shakeup should things not work out yet again results in Toronto heading into the playoffs as an underdog and one that many doubt will do anything significant apart from bouncing early.
It’s a reputation that they have earned by their own defect whether they like it or not, and can only be shed by exorcising their demons and overcoming themselves to reach greater heights. So when their opponent in the first round is confirmed, the Leafs can either continue to let their bad habits embarrass themselves on the national stage or pass the elusive hurdle that they have stopped themselves from climbing.
This team is facing a fork in the road at a critical time in the franchise’s history. Will they finally take the next step or rewrite the same old story that this fanbase is tired of hearing?
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