In sports and in life, too, you’re going to fail. It’s obvious. It’s inevitable. Only one team can win every year, which in turn means 29 others fail. The thing is, the Leafs have done nothing but fail for the past five decades plus. There’s nothing wrong with failing, but it would be nice to succeed every once in a while, right? So as we’re now just hours away from the Leafs starting their quest to be the only team that doesn’t fail this year, I’ve decided to point out a few lessons they can learn from recent past collapses.
Lesson 1: No need to panic! – Years: 2017, 2018, 2020
The Leafs have had some struggles with closing out games ever since Auston Matthews played his first game, and those struggles have certainly filtered over into the playoffs. Whether it was game six against the Capitals in 2017 or game seven in 2018, or even game three last year, protecting leads just hasn’t been the Leafs’ strong suit. They tend to become very panicky and get away from what gave them the lead in the first place. The Leafs are not a team built to play defensive hockey, so they don’t really know what they’re doing when they try to. The 5-1 collapse against the Senators this year was another perfect example of this. Once one goal goes in, the heads have a tendency to drop, and in the playoffs, that feeling just gets amplified. The plan should be, get the lead, and then don’t play scared! You did the hard part; you scored the goals, now just see the game out. Easier said than done, of course, but if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing it.
Lesson 2: Don’t overthink! – Year: 2020
There haven’t been many times over the past 18 months where you could question Sheldon Keefe’s decision-making as Head Coach of the Leafs. But choosing to load up the first line with Tavares, Matthews and Marner for the first two periods of game five against the Blue Jackets last year was questionable at best. Especially considering he choose to break them up when they needed a goal most in the third period. The Leafs had dominated the first four games of the series last season because they could use their depth to come at the Jackets in waves. Keefe took away that advantage in game five by forcing William Nylander to move to his secondary position and centre the second line. Obviously, it is easy for me to sit here and criticize the decision after it didn’t work out, but the Leafs are a very process-based organization, and Keefe didn’t follow the process when he made that move. Maybe he felt the pressure of a win or go home game; perhaps he wanted to try and get an early goal, but either way, the Leafs must play to their strengths this year, and their most significant strength is their forward depth.
Lesson 3: Step on their throat – Year: 2019
Game 5 of the 2019 first-round series against the Boston Bruins seemed like a turning point for the Mike Babcock Leafs. Winning 2-1 in Boston to take a 3-2 series lead going home with the chance to eliminate the Bruins. It was indeed the perfect opportunity for the Leafs to prove to the hockey world and themselves that they weren’t soft, they didn’t lack grit, and they could win the cup playing their style of hockey. They even took a 1-0 lead early in the first period! It was all going to plan until it wasn’t. This year’s Leafs cannot let golden chances to squash their opponents slip. There is nothing a hockey team on the brink of elimination loves more than being given even the slightest shred of hope that their season. Statistically, teams come back from 3-1 and 3-0 series deficits in the NHL double the amount of the MLB and NBA. Especially being the heavy favourites to come out of the North bracket, the Leafs don’t want to be facing the pressure of another game 7.
Lesson 4: Pray your goalie doesn’t shit the bed – Year: Every year in the history of time
The sad reality of hockey is that the goalie position is the most important, and the sport is stupid. No team wins a cup without their goalie bailing them out at least a couple of times a series, and no heavy favourite ever loses a series without getting stonewalled by a guy like Jaro Halak, or fucking Joonas Korpisalo. For the Leafs, they just need Jack Campbell to play decently to get out of the North, and based on his regular-season form, that should be maintainable, but as we all know, the playoffs are a different beast.
If you want to get hyped for game 1 tonight, endulge yourself in this video