Toronto Maple Leafs Are Looking Like Legitimate Playoff Threat


Dec 14, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward

Joffrey Lupul

(right) congratulates Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender

James Reimer

(left) on a win over the Los Angeles Kings at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Los Angeles 4-3 in an overtime shot out. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a sight all too familiar to Toronto Maple Leafs fans. December 16 and the Leafs are holding down a playoff spot.

The same thing held true a year ago, with the Leafs sitting in the final wild card spot around the 35-game mark of the season.

Toronto would end up continuing their run towards the playoffs for another 30 games before fizzling out and crashing down to earth, to the choir of “I told you so’s” from the advanced analytics crowd.

This year paints a similar picture, with the Leafs fourth in the Atlantic Division through 30 games and well on their way to a playoff appearance. Except this year is different. This season, Leafs fans shouldn’t anticipate another drop off and late season collapse.

For starters, on December 16 of last season, Toronto was 17-14-3 through 34 games with a goal differential of zero. So while they were in position to make the playoffs, the writing was on the wall that the success was unsustainable.

This year, their record of 18-9-3 through 30 contests is much more impressive and their goal differential of plus-18—good for third in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the league—is much more re-assuring when it comes to being able to keep up the pace.

Furthermore, the team has shown resilience, as well as the ability to make adjustments.

Many times this season they’ve come off of very poor outings against good teams, only to beat them badly the next time they saw them.

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Take the 4-1 loss to Boston earlier this year, that prompted a players-only meeting. The next time the Bruins played Toronto? The Leafs handed them a 6-1 shellacking.

Then there’s Detroit. In the first two meetings of the season, Detroit won once in regulation and once in overtime, outshooting the Leafs by a 67-54 margin and holding the Buds to a single goal.

In the next meeting? Toronto won at home 4-1.

Fast forward to these teams meeting in Detroit again, where the Leafs somehow emerged victorious in a shootout, despite being outshot 42-19 with their backup goalie in net.

The return leg of the home-and-home provided some deja vu, with the Leafs coming back with a vengeance and handing Detroit another 4-1 loss.

See the Leafs will still be outshot on some nights, and they are finding ways to win despite that fact (recent wins against Los Angeles and Calgary come to mind).

That may be worrisome after last season, but there are reasons that this year isn’t as concerning.

For starters, the club’s shot differential per game has improved from minus-8.2 to minus-3.1.

The penalty kill has also taken a leap forward, to 83.6 percent from 78.4 percent a year ago. That five point jump has seen them move from 28th in the league to 10th.

Finally, the team’s top line isn’t being relied upon as heavily as they were a year ago to shoulder too many minutes.

In 2013-14, all three of Toronto’s top forwards spent at least 20 minutes per game on the ice.

This year has seen each of their workloads reduced by at least a minute-and-a-half, while Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri have also seen their minutes somewhat reduced.

That may not seem like such a big deal, but when the team gets into the stretch run and is poised to solidify their spot in the postseason, their core of forwards—especially their most talented ones—will be more fresh.

All the more important when it was the final quarter of the season that cost them the 2014 playoffs.