Death, taxes, and the Toronto Maple Leafs disappointing in the playoffs.
It may have come a few months later than usual, but the annual tradition of the Leafs blowing it in the playoffs was celebrated on Sunday night as they were ousted in the Stanley Cup qualifying round after a 3-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a deciding fifth game.
A series that began with a Blue Jackets shutout ended the same way.
The Leafs were unable to build any momentum after their stunning comeback win to stay alive in game four, falling behind just over six minutes in when a Zach Werenski point shot was deflected past Freddie Andersen and the offence never managed to solve Joonas Korpisalo.
It was Toronto’s third deciding-game loss in a row after back-to-back game seven defeats at the hands of the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019.
And so begins another offseason, albeit likely a much shorter one, of soul searching for a team that is still looking for a breakthrough.
Most experts picked the Maple Leafs to win this series (I did not, I said Blue Jackets in five) and considering the Leafs were the higher seed in a playoff series since 2004, it seemed like this was a chance for the boys in blue to win their first series since they were the four seed taking out the fifth-seeded Ottawa Senators in the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.
So what happened? It finally was not Boston, but it was the same result. How did the Leafs find a way to break their undeservedly loyal fanbase’s hearts again?
No threats in the slot
Put simply, the Blue Jackets owned the space in front of their own net throughout the series.
For the most part, the Maple Leafs failed miserably at getting to the Blue Jacket goaltender. Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins both had clean looks at practically every shot and rebounds were never a threat since the Columbus defence managed to possess pretty much every puck that their goalie did not control.
While even during the regular season the Leafs were never the best team at taking control of the front of the net, they were non-existent throughout the series, especially in the key moments.
The only time Toronto had any success in front of the net was during the game four comeback when they had an extra man on the ice the whole time.
It was not just lack of a body wreaking havoc and cleaning up garbage. The Blue Jackets kept the bodies and the puck outside of the slot, forcing the Leafs to take most of their shots from the periphery. The Leafs are not a team that score a ton of goals that way.
And then factor in that all five Columbus skaters would collapse back to the net front to block shots, intercept passes, and clear rebounds. A quality chance in front of the net for the Leafs was like spotting a unicorn.
Even when the Leafs did get chances in the danger zone, they failed to convert. The number of posts that were hit, rebounds that skipped over sticks, shots right into the Columbus goalie’s chest etc. just added insult to injury.
The Tavares post in the first period was just the perfect example of this phenomenon. And gets used to seeing that clip until next year’s playoffs, because it sums up the Leafs efficiency perfectly.
Put simply, at no point in this series, even in the games they won, did the Leafs appear at all threatening in front of the Blue Jackets’ net. And it is hard to win a series from the outside.
Offence Depth Evaporates
One of Toronto’s big advantages was their offensive depth. Throughout the regular season, they were able to rely on all four lines to provide scoring.
That was not the case in this series.
First of all, Toronto only managed ten goals in total.
Only seven Leafs put the puck in the back of the net. Two were defenceman (Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci). Of the five Leaf forward that scored, Nick Robertson was the only one not in the top six bury a shot.
Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander all had two goals, while Hyman had one.
One goal from the bottom six against one of the league’s best defences is not enough.
In fact, Kyle Clifford, Jason Spezza, Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall, Frederik Gauthier and Andreas Johnsson combined for a whopping zero points in the series (although cut Clifford and Spezza some slack, their physical contributions made serious positive impacts in games two and four).
In fact, Matthews had as many points in the series as the entire bottom six combined.
That is perhaps why Keefe went with the nuclear option, putting Matthews, Tavares and Mitch Marner out together for most of game five.
While the line played extremely well, dominating possession and creating pressure on pretty much all of their shifts, they hogged the wealth and no other Leaf line was particularly threatening, or was downright incompetent.
Had the line scored, it may have been worth it. But given the lack of offence generated by the rest of the Leafs, they may have been better off spreading out the big three for more of the night.
Back to Robertson, again, the only non-top-six Leaf to score, he was benched in game five in favour of Johnsson, who was activated off of IR earlier in the day and dressed having not played since suffering a knee injury on Feb. 13.
It was a mistake. Johnsson looked rusty most of the night and missed one of the best chances of the night on a two-on-one in the third period. The team clearly missed Robertson’s feistiness.
To cut the Leafs a little bit of slack, the hockey gods were not in their corner.
The number of bad bounces that went against the Leafs was stunning. Especially in game five.
The two goals that beat Freddie Andersen in the decider were both fluky, albeit for different reasons.
Werenski’s first period goal, which turned out to be the series winner, was a crummy bounce. It was an innocent shot that took a fortunate bounce off of Tyson Barrie, probably playing his last game as a Maple Leaf, which Andersen never saw and caught him going the wrong way.
While Nylander did miss his assignment on the play, it was a rough break for the Leafs that no one can really be blamed for.
The second goal was just a brutal bounce off of Andersen. This time, there is absolutely no excuse for the netminder to let that puck past him, but how many times has he played that puck the exact same way and it stayed out? Probably every game. Whether this goal was his fault or not, and on this occasion it definitely was, it is still a bad bounce.
Similarly, on offence, it seemed as though every time a bounce could go against the Leafs, it did. Whether it was rebounds jumping over sticks or shots hitting the wrong side of the bar, for fives games barely a bounce went the way the Leafs needed them to.
That being said, a team should never count on bounces. This whole logic of “eventually the bounces will go their way” that commentators keep spewing is simply not true. No one earns good luck. You have to make it and the Leafs did not.
Too Spoiled and Too Patient
SHOOT THE DAMN PUCK!
You cannot score if you do not shoot.
How have the Leafs not learned this lesson yet?
Ok, so that is slightly unfair since the Leafs put up 30+ shots in every game except for game one and did outshoot the Blue Jackets in game five, the only game where the team with more shots lost. And the Leafs had 14 shots in the third period of game five so they did try.
That being said, for years the Leafs have had a horrible habit of over-passing. They pass and pass and pass and wait for the perfect shot. And against a lot of teams, the opportunity eventually presents itself.
But not against the rock-solid defence of the Blue Jackets.
The Leafs spent a ton of this series controlling the puck and cycling around the Blue Jackets zone waiting for the perfect opportunity, a chance that would never come. Eventually they would fire off a weak shot from the point, the Jackets collected the rebound and cleared the puck.
Sure, they spent most of the time in the offensive zone, but they were hardly threatening.
They fell into their old habits, trying to force too many passes through or going for an extra pass which the Blue Jackets picked off. It is kind of amazing that the Leafs got to 30 shots considering how many sequences they blew with an extra pass.
One of the Leafs’ best plays is that cross-seam pass. They love it. But the Blue Jackets were picking it off every night. But the Leafs kept trying. And it kept getting picked off.
Put simply, the Blue Jackets did not respect the Leafs skill. Of course they did not. That is not how hockey works.
But it is not clear if the Leafs understand that. Those young stars with their mega-contracts still play like they expect their opponents to be in awe of their raw skill and lie over and die. A grizzled team of veterans like the Blue Jackets is going to be happy to grind a team of spoiled brats like the Leafs into the boards all day every day.
Until the Leafs start playing desperately, like they are actually motivated to win, they will continue to lose when it matters. Of course, why would they be motivated. They all have their mega-contracts.
Although again, that is a bit unfair since they were the only ones putting up points.
Speaking of desperation though, that epic game four comeback should have been a blueprint for how Toronto should have been attacking.
They threw everything at the net, not just the puck but bodies too. On all three goals, there were white sweaters on the edge of the crease throwing their weight around and hacking at rebounds. As a result, all three goals came from close in.
True, they had an extra man on the ice which made it easier, but good teams, winning teams, find a way to do that five-on-five.
Speaking of an extra man, Robertson scored 8:48 into the second period of game three. A five-game series is, excluding overtime, 300 minutes, so Robertson scored that goal 149 minutes into the series.
It was Toronto’s last five-on-five goal, meaning they went literally more than half of the series without an even strength goal. In fact, the Leafs only had three even-strength goals total (plus one shorthanded goal and one empty-netter).
That is a credit to the Blue Jackets’ discipline. Everyone knew Toronto’s powerplay was going to be threatening, so the Blue Jackets negated that by staying out of the box when it mattered most.
Sure, a penalty cost them in overtime of game four, but the Blue Jackets only took one penalty in game five and then flustered the Leafs five-on-five, ensuring victory.
Discipline may be the most important word to the Blue Jackets. Everything about their game is disciplined.
They may not be the most skilled team, but they have a strategy and they can execute it.
And as a result, they executed the Leafs.
Even in the games they lost, with the exception of the last four minutes of regulation in game four, the Blue Jackets defence overpowered the Leafs offence. The Leafs had to battle for every inch of ice.
No passes got through the middle of the ice. It was nearly impossible to get through the neutral zone with any momentum. Good luck getting any footing in front of their own net.
Once they had the lead in any game, even game five despite what had happened two nights earlier, it felt like a long road back for Toronto because everyone knew that Columbus could hunker down and defend.
The Blue Jackets had the exact blueprint on how to beat the Leafs and they executed it to perfection.
Bottom line: The Maple Leafs are not a playoff team
Playoff hockey is not just a mindset or an atmosphere. There is a way of playing the game that wins in the playoffs.
And the Leafs do not play that style of hockey.
Of course offence is important, most of the teams that win the cup rank among the league’s best offence. But there is a reason why the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team in the 21st century to lead the league in goals in the regular season and then go on to win the cup.
But grit and defence are important too. Maybe more important. For whatever reason, grinders succeed in the playoffs.
The Leafs should know this having lost to the ultimate playoff grinders, the Boston Bruins, three times in the last decade.
No matter how offensively skilled the Bruins are, and they often are very skilled up front, they also play hard-checking hockey.
There is a level of toughness and compete that winning teams have.
With the exception of skill, none of the words in the paragraphs above apply to the Leafs.
The Leafs may be fast, they may have great playmaking and finishing ability, but to win in the playoffs, you need to battle. Chase down every puck, fight in the corners, duke it out in front of the net.
This incarnation of the Leafs do not do any of these things.
I cannot yell this loudly enough: EXPECTED GOALS ARE NOT GOALS! EXPECTED GOALS DO NOT WIN HOCKEY GAMES!
When everything comes down to one game, trends go out the window. Everything that came before is irrelevant. It is all about what happens on the ice that night.
And while Matthews may have been the Leafs best player in this year’s series, he did not get the job done. Nor did Marner and Nylander. For three years running. None of them have scored in any of the Leafs’ deciding games.
The Leafs have one goal in their last seven periods in deciding games.
When everything is on the line, Toronto’s young stars have consistently failed to step up.
They may be an elite regular season team, but they do not know how to play desperate hockey, nor to they know how to compete with a team playing desperately.
Why did the Blue Jackets win this series? Because they wanted it more. Or at least they gave the appearance of wanting it more. They certainly played like they wanted it more.