The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the best teams in the NHL. If you look at their season, they are near the top in many major categories. However, they are not as good as they look on paper.
First, let's look at the paper so to speak:
- Points: 74 (6th)
- Points Percentage: .685 (5th)
- Goals For: 196 (3rd)
- Goals Against 156 (15th)
- Power Play Percentage: 29 (1st)
- Penalty Kill Percentage: 84.2 (6th)
They're good, right? All jokes aside, those are the numbers of a good team that should challenge any team in the playoffs and very well could go on a deep run. If you don't know the Leafs, those statements are very true. The problem is, we know the Leafs.
Toronto is a good team, but there is a lot of context needed with that statement. They are a good team when things are going well. They are a good team when they are given the space they require for their core to put up big offensive numbers. They are a good team when you feed them power plays, and when you're happy to take shots from the perimeter and make their jobs easy.
However, when the playoffs come, nothing is easy, and that's where the Leafs crumble. It's happened a few times in the regular season just recently. Look at the poor performance they put up against Buffalo, a team more than 30 points behind them going into the game last night. They just didn't have it is what the coach said, but the truth is Buffalo was willing to fight for their space and their opportunities and Toronto wasn't. Go back to the game in Calgary on February 10, a 5-2 loss to the Flames that was a tough, heavy game. Toronto didn't have it.
It's not that the Leafs don't have it, it's that they aren't willing to play the kind of hockey they need to earn that space when the playoffs come. The space to create offense is gone. Every inch must be fought for and earned. You have to hit the guy who is coming to hit you just as hard and let him know that every inch he tries to take from you will be a fight he doesn't want. You have to make the players on the other team fear touching the puck, because it means you're on your way to crunch them into the boards.
Other teams get this. The recipe to defeat the Leafs is well known at this point; take them to a place they aren't comfortable. Hit them. Push them around. Bully them. And by them, I mean Marner, Matthews, Nylander, and a few others. Sure, the Leafs bottom six will be hitting and fighting, but that won't win them a series. It's gotta be the core four. Those four players need to put the word out that there is a price to pay for trying to push them around. That they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Right now, the Leafs are only willing to play their way, the comfortable way, and if you won't let them do that, they just won't have it that night.