The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be well on their way to a playoff berth in the NHL's Eastern Conference. While the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are well ahead of the pack, the Leafs are in the third spot in the conference.
There are no guarantees in the volatile NHL standings, but the odds are in favour of the Leafs grabbing a playoff spot this spring. The next issue is whether or not the Leafs can expect to enjoy some playoff success.
Given that the club was just happy to make the playoffs last year, success this year would likely mean winning at least one, if not two rounds. The Leafs are a young team with a lot of upside, but given the team's limitations, it would be a stretch to have higher expectations than winning a round or two.
Success this year would be to win at least one, if not two playoff rounds. This mercurial crew is difficult to figure out, but I would argue there are three main reasons why the team should expect some modest playoff success.
The first, and easily the most important factor, is the team has one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL. James Reimer, and in particular, Jonathan Bernier, have had very good seasons. Bernier is tied for fourth in the NHL in save percentage at .926 while Reimer is tied for 22nd at .913. The Leafs are third in the East and fifth in the NHL in overall save percentage, and this bodes well in the playoffs.
Save percentage is often a team stat, but as close observers know, in the case of the 2013-14 Leafs, the goaltenders have been a huge component in this excellent team save percentage. Given the number of quality chances and the total number of shots the team yields on most nights, Bernier and Reimer have been dynamite.
The second factor is the dominance of the team's first line. Granted, it could be argued since this line has accounted for 40 percent of the team's goals, the team is relatively one dimensional. However, teams have known for a while this line is dominant, and they haven't been able to shut them down yet.
Buoyed by excellent performances in Sochi for Team USA, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have to be considered one of the best offensive duos in the NHL. While Tyler Bozak isn't in their same league, skill-wise, the line works well together and will strike some fear in Eastern Conference opponents.
The Leafs' secondary scoring will need to be better, and that will improve with David Bolland's return. However, that first line is capable of winning at least a game or two—if not an entire series—on its own.
The third factor is that, quite simply, beyond the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins, the Leafs are among the next best teams in the league's weaker conference. As long as they don't finish in one of the two wild-card spots, they should be able to avoid the two powerhouse teams in the first round.
This young squad was able to gain some important and painful playoff experience last year. Most teams have to learn how to lose in the challenging NHL playoffs prior to having success. The Leafs are no exception.
If they can use what they learned last year and gain some momentum with some first-round success, they should enter a series against either the Penguins or the Bruins with some confidence.
Yes, there are some demons to exorcise with the Bruins, but they have to recall they were up in that series last spring, as well as in the final game before their collapse. Additionally, the Penguins have issues in goal, which could be a huge factor in a short series, particularly against the Leafs who can boast such a strong tandem between the pipes.
The playoffs are a grind, but with some more experience, a lot of hard work and some puck luck, there is reason to believe the Leafs will enjoy some playoff success this spring.
All stats can be found on NHL.com unless otherwise noted.