One of the biggest problems the Toronto Maple Leafs have had under Sheldon Keefe, and Mike Babcock, for that matter, is keeping their foot on the gas and staying in the moment. Not just throughout a game, or even a series, but throughout an entire season too. The Leafs are notorious for choking, to put it bluntly, and it’s hard to argue against the idea that the Leafs are bad at holding leads. However, all Leafs fans will tell you that this year’s team is different from those of years past, and it DOES feel different. What all the past Leafs teams may have lacked, this team has. An above average defence, at the very least? Check. The Leafs are 11th in the NHL in expected goals against per 60 minutes. An All-Star goalie to back up that above-average defence? Check. Jack Campbell has a .930 save percentage and is ninth in the NHL in goals saved above expected. Depth throughout the lineup? Check. Every single Leaf has a positive expected goal share at five on five so far this season, the only team in the NHL able to say that. Yet, despite all this, this Leafs team cannot shake the one thing that has plagued the Auston Matthews-led Leafs teams every season since he’s been in the league, the inability to finish strong.
This point comes to mind due to the Leafs’ wild last six games. In four of those six games, the Leafs held a 3-1 lead and in each, the opponent managed to tie the game. They somehow ‘only’ lost two of the four games, which I guess is a positive sign. Last year’s team, if they blew a lead, it was blown, rarely were they ever able to come back and win the game all over again. The 5-1 capitulation to the Ottawa Senators last year is a prime example. We all cast that game aside and said it was just one game but it showed that the cracks were still there.
All good teams have bad losses, it’s the NHL, and it’s hockey. The sport is really random and the season is long. Honestly, giving up two-goal leads isn’t unusual either, but the best teams have the innate ability to shut the game down when they get a multi-goal lead in the third period. The Leafs don’t yet. I believe that the best way to defend a lead in hockey is to control possession and defend by attacking, which is a thing the Leafs are really good at! Until they get a lead in the third period.
Just look at the game against the Islanders Saturday night for a prime example. Going into the third period, the Leafs had generated 1.8 xG; in the third period, they generated just 0.2. Yes, they managed to win and yes, of course, you don’t want to leave yourself vulnerable to attacks, but it wasn’t a very convincing defensive performance either in that third period! The Islanders generated 45 percent of their total xG for the game in the third period alone. I think the Leafs get so worried about making a mistake and blowing leads in third periods that they abandon their game plan and just hope for the best. But they can’t do that, it’s not working! Trust yourselves, trust your teammates and trust that your head coach will put you in a position to succeed and usually, things will go okay.
Now, that’s just one game, and it doesn’t help that all the Leafs’ blown leads have come in a ten-day stretch, but we’ve all seen this movie before, and we’ve seen it on larger scales too. This team hasn’t finished a season strongly in like a decade. Even last year, they finished the season with a 7-8 record in their last fifteen games. We can also look back to the team’s failures when having the opportunity to close out a series. Whether it be last year, the year before that, or the year before that, you get my point. The Leafs have been either too busy looking ahead or too busy remembering their past collapses to stay focused on the task at hand and we need that to change this year.
Adversity is positive, and if this team is who we think they are going to need to be able to overcome adversity, as all great teams do. Look at the last 3 Cup champions, each of them was able to stay focused on what was in front of them despite what happened to them in the past. The Capitals were the poster child for playoff chokes before the Leafs took over that mantle and they managed to put it all together for a one-year run. The Blues were quite literally the worst team in the league for half a season, yet didn’t lose sight of what was possible and ended the year on top. Tampa, well Tampa had one of the most embarrassing playoff loses ever, came back the next two years and steamrolled everybody on their way to back-to-back Cups. Those teams finally learned how to play without fear, without any doubt in their mind that they were going to win, and it worked. Or maybe they just got lucky, who knows, it’s hockey, but I choose to believe that there’s some rhyme and reason to all of this nonsense! Either way, if the Leafs can emulate those great teams, this year could be special, if not, well…
This team is so damn good, and it would be utterly heartbreaking to see them lose the same way all the other Leafs teams lost because, I’ll repeat it, they’re supposed to be different! In life, it’s hard to really know when someone has genuinely changed; sure they can say all the right things, and they may seem different, but are they? Usually, if someone’s really changed you won’t notice it all at once, it’ll be a gradual progression, and for the Leafs it’s the same thing. It starts with the regular season and if the Leafs can finish the second half of the season just as strongly or if not better than they started, then maybe, just maybe, we can start to honestly believe they’ve changed.
All stats from Natural Stat Trick and Moneypuck