Toronto Maple Leafs: How They Can Get into the Second Round of the Playoffs
After Saturday night's wakeup call against the defending Stanley Cup champions, one thing is clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs are not winning it all this season. Sorry, I didn't mean to shock you right off the bat.
Though the club is on an impressive run since the beginning of February (10-3-4), losing just three times in regulation, they're not championship material. The Chicago Blackhawks proved that.
So now that we've cleared that up, what is this team? They're showing with this late-season run that they are, in fact, in playoff contention. Just five points out with 16 games remaining, they've got a shot.
But what about if they get into the dance? Could this version of the Leafs actually win a round in the postseason?
It's possible; just ask the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens of last season, who finished seventh and eighth respectively during the regular season and then met up in the Eastern Conference Finals. All you need to do is get in.
And while this club is obviously in take-it-one-game-at-a-time mode, desperately trying to keep pace with the clubs ahead of them, we're just going to be brash and look ahead, way ahead, at what would need to happen for the Leafs to advance to the second round.
And I know what you're thinking: hold on, you over-eager psycho, and wait until this team is actually in before you go ahead and look at how they can win a round.
I hear you, but where's the fun in that?
If the Leafs get into the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, here's a few things they need to do to get past the first round.
Win on the Road
The Leafs aren't getting home ice advantage in the playoffs. That, my friends, is for sure (apologies, again, for the shocking news). If this team is getting in, it will be by the skin of their teeth and in either the eighth or seventh spot in the East.
So, no matter how far they go, they're playing more games on the road then at home. And the road, you'll recall, has not been all that nice to the Buds this season. They're 14-16-2 as visitors up to this point, and to have success as a lower seed in the playoffs, you have to win on the road. You have to.
In that case, they're already in trouble. However, things have been looking up as of late, and the club is proving they might just have the ability to win away from the ACC after all—which is borderline miraculous.
The Leafs are 5-2-1 in their last eight on the road, with four of those wins coming against teams currently in a playoff spot. So they're doing better, yes, but it's not what they've done that's going to help them—it's what they're going to do.
They need to keep winning on the road—both now, and if they find themselves in the postseason.
Improve on the Power Play
It's been one of the most depressing and lackluster areas of the Maple Leafs game in the past couple years: the power play.
On most nights they look lost—aimlessly throwing the puck around, having passes intercepted and launching point shots with the accuracy of your drunk uncle *Larry. It's ugly, really ugly.
Their power play is ranked at 25, which is actually an improvement from the past few years, but it's still not good enough. Not even close.
What makes it the most frustrating for fans (and undoubtedly the team), is that when they score with the man advantage, they win. They're 15-7-5 this season when they score one PP goal or more.
They're 14-21-4 when they don't.
And though it's not the only thing that holds them back from being a playoff-calibre team all the time, it certainly plays a large role. And clearly, they win a lot more when they're productive while a man up.
One thing that does seem to go their way on a regular basis is the number of PP opportunities they get. Their 271 PP opportunities is the most in the NHL (along with Tampa Bay), and their 43 PPG are 15th overall.
So they have the chances, and they do score—but the fact of the matter is this: they should have more success with the number of opportunities they get.
It's easy to see, not so easy to fix. Not for this team, anyway.
Fix the power play, make it more consistent (and successful), and you've got yourself a team that scores more.
And when you score more, you win more. Just like drunk uncle Larry always said.
* I do not have a drunk uncle Larry, though if I did, I'm sure I'd value his opinion, never mind his poor accuracy.
Beat the Top Teams
In case you're new (and if so, welcome), you're aware that when you slip in as the eighth seed to the playoffs, the best team in your conference is waiting for you with home ice advantage and expectations of crushing you into the ice and spitting out ice cubes.
And now you have to beat them four times in two weeks.
Best of luck.
But as we've seen this season, especially as of late, the Leafs seem to perform well against the Eastern Conference's best teams. As we've already seen, four of their past five wins have been against teams currently in a playoff spot.
Against the fourth-place Pittsburgh Penguins, the Leafs are an impressive 2-1-1 this season. When facing the third-place Washington Capitals this season, they're 1-1-1.
When it comes to the rival Boston Bruins, it's been about as even as it gets between two teams (as surprising as that may sound. They've both won two games in the series. The Bruins have outscored the Leafs 9-8 through the four games. The Leafs are 3-13 on the power play and the Bruins are 2-10, while the shots lean in favour towards the Bruins, 127-125.
To sum up, the Bruins are outscoring the Leafs by one goal and two shots this season. Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a series.
Against the first-place (while it lasts) Philadelphia Flyers, the Leafs have lost twice. They have won once against the suddenly not-so-tough Orange Crush.
And furthermore, they've beat all four teams on the road, without the soft-spoken, suit-wearing, semi-interested-in-the-game home fans behind them.
Sure, if the Leafs were to push themselves into a spot in the top eight, they'd be monster underdogs coming in. But they've shown they can beat each of the top four teams (one of which they'd likely play in the first round), and like we've already said; all you have to do is get in.
If they do that, then they need to harness whatever power that got them past the best teams during the regular season, and see if it has any effect in the real season.
And now, you may return to being caught up in the playoff chase-we'll see if there was any point to writing this on another day.
As you were.