The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Looking at past seasons, you would think Leafs fans are happy they are just in the thick of the race, but if you’re someone who has been following the blue and white all year, you might be bitter.
The Maple Leafs haven’t worked their way into a playoff spot, they are slowly seeing their playoff aspirations fading away, hence the bitterness. The fact is the Maple Leafs were the best team in their division, and perhaps in the league, for a little while.
But now they are just trying to keep their heads above the water. What went wrong in such a short time? These are the reasons the Maple Leafs are no longer one of the top dogs in the Eastern Conference.
The Maple Leafs sit dead last in the league in killing penalties. At only a 73.17 success rate, they are letting the opposing team score on them on almost 30 percent of the power-play opportunities. It’s also not surprising they have allowed 33 goals on 123 chances down by a man, which again is the worst in the league.
The Leafs need to figure out a way to stop this from happening. You cannot coach against referees calling penalties. Some nights they will call everything, some nights they will call nothing, but regardless of how disciplined your team is, you need to stop the bleeding right at the penalty box door.
The Leafs need their PK units to start getting the puck out of the zone. They need to start blocking the passing and shooting lanes, and more importantly, they need their goalie to bail them out on the PP. It has not happened yet thus far.
There was about a two-week period in the middle of November when they only allowed a few PP goals in a span of about six or seven games. They need to find a way to get back to that point.
James Reimer is 1-3-1 since returning from a concussion injury. Before the injury, he helped the Leafs pick up a point in every game they had played, going 4-0-1. Then as Reimer was injured, Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens combined to go 9-7-1. Not a bad record for a backup goalie and a rookie.
Towards the end of Reimer's injury, Gustavsson was looking better, and was maybe making a case for becoming the new No. 1. He had won three straight games against Tampa Bay, Dallas and Anaheim. He then picked up a 4-2 win over fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers after Reimer returned and pushed his record to 9-4-0. But aside from that game, he has now lost his last two.
Combined since Reimer returned, the Leafs have a 2-5-1 record. Is it all because of the goaltending?
Of course not. But in the eight games since Reimer's return, the goalies have allowed 30 goals. Only one game have they allowed less than two goals. You can’t blame the whole slide on the goaltending, but as I said in an earlier article, December is a tough month and it separates the contenders from the pretenders.
The Leafs need to figure out a way to stop that puck from going in the net. They thought Reimer's return would give them a boost; unfortunately it has not worked so far.
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are the only forwards with double-digit goals (19 and 15, respectively). Clarke MacArthur is next with 9. While the Kessel-Lupul tag team has been a lot of fun to watch, it has been a pain to watch everyone else.
Let’s go back to those eight games since Reimer's return. The Maple Leafs have only given their netminders 21 goals of support in contrast to the 30 they have allowed, a differential of minus-9.
Kessel and Lupul can’t continuously be the only forwards racking up the points. The Leafs need the scoring to come from all four lines, or else it will be too easy for the other teams to neutralize them. If they know the only people who can score are Kessel and Lupul, it’s easier to make a game plan to isolate those two, and work around the others.
Boston did it by matching up Zdeno Chara against Kessel all night. Of course, not all plans follow through during a game of hockey, but when the Leafs aren’t scoring, it makes it easier on the other team to execute those plans.
What is surprising is the Leafs have the sixth-most PP goals scored in the league, with 25, to give them a 22.32 percent proficiency rate. They have scored 72 even-strength goals, but they clearly need more.
97 total goals in only 32 games is a great stat, but not when you have given up 105 goals.
The Maple Leafs are only two points out of sixth place and five points from fourth. But the Leafs do have five teams below them that are within five points or less of reaching them in the standings.
It is a packed house in the Eastern Conference, and it will only get harder for the Leafs as the season goes along. Teams like Tampa Bay, Montreal and Washington will only be struggling for so long. They have a lot of talent that can turn it on at any second and start to chase them down.
The Maple Leafs have already had a first-hand look at this when Boston dethroned them from the top spot in the Northeastern Division. Now they are trying to reclaim it, and it will take a lot of work as other teams like New Jersey and Winnipeg and Buffalo are starting to get on a roll.
If the Leafs can start to take better care of themselves and pick up 4-5 points a week, they won’t need to worry about what everyone else in the division is doing.
But if they continue to stumble along, they will find themselves watching the mightier teams surpass them on the road to the playoffs.