Taking It To The Next Level

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Beginning this week with first round match-ups set, the NHL unleashes the professional hockey version of Spring Madness. Parity has afforded the league the luxury of a playoff season that really is open to any of the sixteen participants to be crowned Stanley Cup Champion. Beginning back in September, the seven months of blood, sweat, and toil to qualify for the extended season drives home the cruelty of sport with the reality, it could all be over in a week. The roller coaster ride of emotions during this period reek havoc on a city but nothing unifies one more than a deep playoff run. Bring it on!

So much has to go right for teams to win starting with the surprise hero from nowhere; a hot or cold goalie depending which side of the goal line you are cheering from; upsets tilt the tournament bracket to the unknown and in a way level the playing field. These occurrences are what make the NHL playoffs the best in sports, bar none.

Entering the playoffs in a much stronger position this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs are set to challenge for a shot at the sixteen victory parade. However, along with the improved success comes higher expectations coupled with a controversial playoff format (two of the top 3 seeds in each division go head to head in the first round). Simply put, four very good teams will be eliminated in the opening round and while this makes for heart pounding excitement it will suck for the losers. But isn’t this what great sports are all about, a wide-open playoff format available to any team that qualifies? How envious is the NBA that has maybe four teams who have a chance at a title and the rest are basically schedule fillers? The MLB season opened over the weekend and by the end of May, twenty teams will pretty much be eliminated from post-season play.

While this signifies why the NHL is the best pro league in North America hands down, it also means your team could quickly be watching from the sidelines. Which brings me to the Leafs.

Does Toronto have a realistic chance to win the Cup this year? If everything goes right they sure do.

No team ever wins a Stanley Cup with out great goaltending so that’s a given. The simplicity of the game is to keep the puck out of your net and score one more than the other team. That concept hasn’t changed since the game was played on regular basis starting in 1875. The Leafs defensive zone play will be the key to success or failure thus it’s imperative the forwards be committed to defense first and foremost. The transition to offense with Toronto’s skilled forwards will take care of itself and similar to Pittsburgh the last two years, they didn’t have big forwards either, yet they prioritized defense and the result are back-to-back Championships.

The Leafs have an edge with the depth up front and if utilized properly (with Babcock’s experience there’s no doubt they won’t) this is what could separate them from whomever they play. Besides great goaltending, the other obvious is the best players have to outplay the other teams best players. No question about that.

The difference maker is usually how the bottom three or even the bottom six play versus the opponent. If the Maple Leafs can take advantage of this and get production from the bottom six this will be a difference maker (they have 4 or 5 players with limited ice that would play regular throughout half the league).

The Leafs recently played the Winnipeg Jets and some labeled it a preview of a possible future Stanley Cup match-up maybe as soon as this year (the odds for the Leafs to win the Cup went up after losing that game). That’s all well and dandy but I like to look at that loss as a reminder game. With the score tied at one in the second period Blake Wheeler drove the net and charging hard, Mark Scheifele was set to pounce on a loose puck but unintentionally ran into Leaf goalie Frederick Anderson. He tried to brace the impact by putting his arms around Anderson but was going to fast to slow the contact and even apologized after. The Leafs bench was incensed at the non-call (should have been a penalty) and moments later Jake Gardiner in uncharacteristic fashion crosschecked Scheifele into the boards behind the net. While serving the penalty not only did the Jets score but a minute later had a second in the back of the Leafs net. They lost the game 3-1.

As the playoffs approach the compete level is ratcheted up and things aren’t going to go your way all the time, calls will be missed or let go and any lack of discipline will end up with the puck in the back of your net. Expect the unexpected; ignore the cheap shots, late hits or anything that may upset your game. One goal can end a season very quickly and remember it’s an easier game with five skaters on the ice. Stay out of the box. Discipline and hard work create opportunity.

Mitch Marner knows better than anyone about increased intensity once the post season begins; last year Washington targeted him and he was pretty much a non-factor. I will bet that doesn’t happen again this year who ever the Leafs play starting with Boston.

The shock factor will be replaced by nervous energy.

First off the Leafs power play is very effective and the number one unit doesn’t even feature the best player on the team. Teams like Boston will be a little less likely to entice a player or take a cheap shot but they still will (insert Brad Marchand’s name here). The Leafs also have enough scoring on every line that the opponents can’t cover them all!

As I said earlier, if the Toronto forwards can limit the scoring chances of their man once the other team has puck possession it increases the chance for success. Again the plan is pretty simple, which is, if you don’t have the puck, go get it!
Much easier said than done, yes I understand that (the other guys are paid to score as well) but if the Leafs can efficiently manage their own end with the help of all twelve forwards?

It could be a fun spring!