Another year, another first round exit for Toronto?
With playoff hockey around the corner, the agenda is simple for the Toronto Maple Leafs this postseason: win a playoff series.
As the cards currently stack up, the Maple Leafs will be hosting a playoff series in a rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Last season, the Maple Leafs lost in painful fashion: a 2-1 loss in game seven.
Maple Leafs fans will almost reminisce that their team is cursed and destined to never win a first round playoff series or a game seven. When looking at their playoff history since 2013, it’s hard to dispute that.
"Honestly seeing the same outcome year after year with this team is just so frustrating," said Cole Murchison, a 22-year old Maple Leafs fan. "I've never witnessed them win a first round in my life, I just want them to do something."
The Maple Leafs have lost their previous seven first round series. It all started in 2013. In game seven, Toronto led the Boston Bruins 4-1 with 14:31 to go in the third period. They ended up losing in overtime, as Patrice Bergeron scored the game winner to complete Boston’s improbable comeback.
In 2017, a young Maple Leafs team lost to the Washington Capitals in six games. Not many expected a young core, featuring the likes of a rookie Auston Matthews, rookie Mitch Marner and second-year William Nylander to take down the President Trophy winners. But it seemed like there was promise for this new, young core to finally bring Toronto their first Stanley Cup since 1967.
But ever since then, that just hasn’t been the case. It’s been five straight first round exits for Toronto with their core of Matthews, Marner and Nylander; all of them ending in a winner-take-all elimination game.
When looking at Toronto during series clinching games since 2018, it hasn’t been pretty.
“I’m afraid that I’m going to die before I see Toronto win a Stanley Cup,” said Chuck Vasconcelos, a life-long Maple Leafs fan. Vasconcelos is 55 years old.
Despite all of this failure in the playoffs, Toronto has seen some of the best regular season play in franchise history since 2018. Matthews broke the franchise record for most goals scored in a season in 2022, becoming the first Maple Leaf to score 60 goals. He’s established himself as one of the premier goalscorers in the NHL, having led the NHL in goals twice during his career.
Toronto has also seen some of their best regular seasons in franchise history since 2018 as well. They’ve finished above 100 points in four of the six seasons. The highlight: a franchise-record 115 point season in 2021-22.
The real question here is why hasn’t this regular season success been able to translate into the playoffs? It seems through every season that Toronto is one of the most talented teams in the NHL. But when push comes to shove in the playoffs, this team just seemingly can’t get it done when needed.
In response to this lack of postseason success, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas decided to go “all-in” during the deadline. Here are the players Toronto acquired.
The X-factor move at the deadline? Bringing in veteran centreman Ryan O’Rielly. Before his injury, O’Rielly tallied three goals in eight games, and is expected to play a key role come playoff time.
O’Rielly has prior playoff experience, being a key contributor in St. Louis’ Stanley Cup run in 2018. The former Conn Smythe trophy winner adds a much-needed veteran and playoff presence to a Toronto squad that has struggled in the playoffs mightily.
While the O’Rielly trade stole the headlines, the acquisitions of F Noel Acciari, F Sam Lafferty, D Erik Gustafsson, D Jake McCabe and D Luke Schenn added plenty of much-needed depth to Toronto, both offensively and defensively.
Against Tampa Bay this season, Toronto split the season series. Heading into the playoffs, the Lightning have a record of 10-10-4 in their last 24 games. This does include a couple stretches where they have lost five straight games or lost eight of 10. After three consecutive Stanley Cup appearances, are the Lightning starting to show fatigue?
Both these teams feature some of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, both ranking in the top ten for goals per game. But no matter how strong Toronto’s offense is, they’ll have to find a way to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy. In his playoff career, he has a 2.30 goals against average (GAA) and a .923 save percentage (SV%). He’s also posted seven shutouts over Tampa Bay’s previous three playoff runs.
Although the Leafs shored up their depth well at the deadline, they may have a battle with chemistry after making so many changes to their lineup in a short period of time. They have a rotation of eight or nine defenders to use, which can make it difficult to develop any sense of regularity and familiarity with the lineup or one’s defensive partners. Though the additions have given them stronger defensive depth in this matchup.
Toronto will be playing desperate hockey as they try to prove that they deserve a spot amongst the top of the league. There will be a ton of pressure among them to perform after so many years of postseason failure. How they hone this frantic energy will be key to take down an experienced, but possibly fatigued, Lightning squad.
After years of misery, is this finally the year Toronto wins a playoff series? With their key additions and situation, it looks like they have a good chance.
4-3 Maple Leafs