It’s been 15 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs last made it out of the first round of the NHL playoffs. They’re looking to change that this season and they have a team talented enough to make it happen.
The Leafs have the second-most wins in the Eastern Conference and the second-best goal differential in the entire NHL. They have three players scoring at better than a point-per-game pace, two players with more than 30 goals already, and ten players in double digits in goals.
On top of that, they’re getting great goaltending from Frederik Andersen, whose .923 save percentage ranks among the elite in the league.
There’s just one problem: they’re going to have to go through the Boston Bruins.
It’s unavoidable at this point, thanks to the playoff format introduced with the league’s new divisions in 2014. The Leafs have no chance at finishing first in the Atlantic Division thanks to the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning. They’re essentially guaranteed to finish second or third. The same is true of the Bruins, which makes a first-round meeting inevitable.
That’s not good for the Leafs, for whom the Bruins are a bogeyman akin to the Chicago Blackhawks to the Canucks heading into the 2011 playoffs.
Of the three times the Leafs have made the playoffs over the last 15 years (which is embarrassing on its own), the Bruins have knocked them out twice. The Bruins won in seven games both times, and both times were traumatizing.
The Leafs thought they had the first round of the 2013 playoffs in the bag. They were up 4-1 in Game 7, with 11 minutes to play in the third period, but the Bruins somehow scored three goals in regulation, then won it in overtime. It was one of the most epic collapses in NHL playoff history.
In 2018’s Game 7, the Leafs once again held a lead over the Bruins going into the third period. Their 4-3 lead quickly evaporated, however, as the Bruins scored four unanswered goals for a crushing 7-4 victory.
It was their inability to hold a lead that led to the Leafs leaving the postseason early, but that hasn’t been a problem for them this season. Heading into Vancouver on Wednesday, the Leafs had a perfect winning record in the 32 games they’ve led going into the third period. Surely that’s a sign they’re more resilient this season and won’t collapse to the Bruins this time around.
Only, the Canucks put a blemish on that record. Yes, the lowly Canucks, who have been on a dreadful losing skid and had just three wins all season when trailing after two periods. I saw the Canucks sow a seed of doubt amongst the Leafs when I watched this game.
- The Canucks played this game like they had something to prove after their listless loss in Las Vegas. They came out firing in the first period, out-shooting the Leafs 15-8, even if they couldn’t buy a goal. They slowed down in the second, but came on strong in the third period and overtime, for about as solid an effort as we’ve seen from the Canucks in recent weeks.
- The Leafs tried to pull off the bank pass off the end boards that worked so well for Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser (and the Sedins before them), but Jacob Markstrom kept their effort off the highlight reel. Morgan Rielly sent the bank pass to Mitch Marner, but Markstrom stuck with him like Tammy Wynette and made the pad stop. They tried it again in the second period, but Marner missed the net. Guys, it only works for the Canucks. You’ll have to sign in Vancouver if you want to do cool stuff like that.
- The Leafs trotted out an unusual fourth line for this game, in that there wasn’t a big bruiser among them. In fact, all three forwards — Tyler Ennis, Nic Petan, and Trevor Moore — are 5’9”. Well, technically Moore is listed at 5’10”, but I have it on pretty good authority that’s an exaggeration. While the league has grown friendlier to undersize players in recent years, players under 5’10” are still relatively rare, and it’s even rarer to see them all on one line. We’ll see how long that line lasts together.
- Notably, those three players make a combined $2,449,125 against the salary cap, which is less than a quarter of the cost of the Canucks’ fourth line.
- The Canucks power play finally scored a goal, but they also gave up a shorthanded goal, so it evened out. On the shorthanded goal, Markus Granlund took too long to take what would have been a low-percentage shot and it got blocked, springing a 2-on-1 the other way. Mitch Marner stopped up to create a passing lane past Troy Stecher and Brock Boeser wasn’t fast enough to get back to prevent Ron Hainsey, of all people, from scoring.
- Sidenote: yes, the Leafs use Marner, their leading scorer, to kill penalties. Also regularly killing penalties: Kasperi Kapanen, their fifth-leading scorer.
- With Ben Hutton injured after blocking a shot off his foot in Vegas, Derrick Pouliot got back in the lineup alongside Alex Biega. It did not go well. When Pouliot and Biega were on the ice together at 5-on-5, the Canucks were out-shot 14-6 and Pouliot got victimized by the speed of the Leafs a few times.
- Case in point, the 2-0 goal. Pouliot got chased down by speedy dad Patrick Marleau on the forecheck and lost the puck. John Tavares took it behind the net before Rielly made like the “i” in his name and showed up where no one expected him, sending Tavares’s pass under Markstrom’s blocker on the short side with a quick shot.
- That was a pretty outstanding game by Troy Stecher. He played 27:47, had a whopping 15 shots attempts (even if only 4 made it to the net), and saw the Canucks out-shoot the Leafs 12-7 despite playing in a matchup role against the Leafs’ top line. He even had one of the biggest hits of the game, stepping into Auston Matthews with a solid open ice check.
- Bo Horvat got robbed at the end of the second period by a spectacular glove save from Andersen. If it’s any consolation, time actually ran out before Andersen snagged the puck, so, technically, Andersen didn’t save it at all. The save never happened. Andersen didn’t rob Horvat: he just happened to catch a puck in his glove outside the boundaries of the game. It was a completely unrelated happenstance.
- The Canucks’ third period comeback was incredibly unlikely, and not just because the Leafs hadn’t lost a game after entering the third period with the lead. They tied the game on the two unlikeliest of occurrences: goals from Loui Eriksson and the power play. Inconceivable!
- Adam Gaudette made a great play on Eriksson’s goal, gaining the zone, then spinning away from William Nylander to find Eriksson jumping up the middle. Eriksson slid to the right, cha-cha’d real smooth, then fired a backhand past Andersen’s blocker against the grain.
- This was Josh Leivo’s first game against the Leafs since they traded him to the Canucks, so you better believe he was pumped when he scored against them. On the power play, Nikolay Goldobin took a pass from Gaudette in the neutral zone, stepped over the Leafs’ blue line, and flipped a lovely saucer pass to Leivo, who responded affirmatively to the question, “Can I kick it?” and went skate to stick before snapping the puck inside the far post.
- Apart from the Rielly goal, where he never square to the shot, Markstrom was on point like Pai Mei. He made a game-saving stop on Tavares in the third period, stealing a goal with his glove to keep the game tied at two.
- The Canucks owned overtime, keeping possession for almost the entire time. It culminated in a long stretch pass from Brock Boeser to Alex Edler, which was a bit of a role reversal. Like every single element of the set design for Grand Budapest Hotel, Edler’s wrist shot was perfectly placed: it was just high enough to skim over Andersen’s pad and under his glove.
- There’s always something satisfying about the Canucks beating the Leafs. Enjoy it, everyone.