The Toronto Maple Leafs have put themselves in a good position in the standings, but they will need to do more to ensure they make the playoffs.
After losing to a Zamboni driver over a week ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs responded well with three well-earned wins over teams in the playoff hunt.
It’s the exact kind of turnaround that you hope to see from a team that hopes to not only reach the postseason but also do some damage when they get there. Obviously it’s only been three games, but the way the team has been playing is an encouraging sight, to say the least.
However, it’s not good enough to be satisfied with how they played for one week. The last thing this Leafs team can do is be comfortable with where they sit in the standings and think they have an easy ride to the playoffs. Far from it, they will need to keep their foot on the gas pedal and continue to build their cushion over the Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division.
Because while they are currently five points ahead of their division rival, the Leafs can’t afford to ease back on their effort. Otherwise, their quest to clinch a fourth consecutive playoff birth becomes far more difficult than it has already been.
No easy games down the stretch
Looking ahead to this upcoming week, the Leafs will head down to California and play three teams who will likely not make the postseason this year. It sounds like a cakewalk, right? Wrong, because there’s no guarantee that Toronto will sweep the trip with ease.
The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks may not be the powerhouses they once were, but that doesn’t mean they will make it easy for the Leafs. With nothing to play for except the role of spoiler, that would be the perfect storm to catch the Leafs off-guard and blindside them into losing some crucial games.
And it’s not limited to just the games on this road trip, it also extends to the stretch run of the year. While the Leafs have some games against top contenders like the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals, there are also a few more tilts with bottom dwellers such as the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils, and Montreal Canadiens. They will need to put in a solid effort each and every night to ensure they don’t miss out on some valuable points.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Leafs are going to win every game because that’s the nature of the sport. But what can be in the team’s control is putting in a sound effort each and every night the rest of the way. Should that be the case, then it will be encouraging to see them play well regardless of the result.
That’s why it’s so critical for the Leafs to not take their foot off the gas down the stretch. There is no way the playoff seedings will remain set in stone for the rest of the month and things can change on a dime in this league. The proof was in the pudding this past week as we saw the Leafs fortune’s do a complete 180 compared to where they were after losing to a Zamboni driver.
Different playstyle coming to fruition
One aspect of the Toronto Maple Leafs play that has been more prevalent in recent weeks is their physical style is starting to show up more.
We are seeing the likes of Auston Matthews, Kasperi Kapanen, and Travis Dermott playing with more of an edge to their game and have demonstrated more snarl than in the past. It’s so refreshing to see because it’s the type of playstyle that will help a skilled team keep up with bigger teams in the playoffs, which is to say they are playing playoff-hockey.
Matthews has been using his large frame to forecheck, play the body, and free up the puck to either start the cycle or generate a quality scoring chance. He doesn’t have to lay big hits all the time, but he has thrown a few on occasion and it’s exactly what needs to become even more dangerous to play against.
Kapanen must have felt inspired by the acquisition of Kyle Clifford to become a pest because he is now using his speed to play more physical and is willing to drop the gloves in defence of his teammates. With Nazem Kadri gone, there was an open slot to become the Leafs new prick and it seems Kapanen is going to take the reins himself.
As for Dermott, he is playing a bit more aggressively on the puck carrier and applying more physical pressure to minimize the threat. He did that well on Saturday against Elias Pettersson and although he went to the box, he knew how far he could go without getting the ire of the officials.
I can’t say that this is all thanks to the acquisition of Clifford last month, but you can’t deny that the Leafs are finally starting to figure out what play-style they need to implement in order to have success consistently.
These players had it in them, but it took years of trial and error to bring that physicality out of them. You can’t teach the skill, that comes naturally to a lot of these players, but you can teach said player to add some snarl to their game.
It is early in the process, of course, but the way the Toronto Maple Leafs have played recently is a promising sight. They have been playing with more of a purpose and some of the key guys are starting to up their physical presence.
As long as they can maintain this down the stretch and put in a sound effort each and every night, their path back to the postseason becomes a lot more easier.