The Toronto Maple Leafs face playoff elimination tonight, but have dug their heels in against the Boston Bruins and have “done a lot of good things” in the series according to Randy Carlyle. From the perpetually unimpressed man who guided the team to a horrid crash and lottery finish and a playoff berth in less than 82 games, I’d call that high praise.
With the Buds backs against the wall, here’s four thoughts ahead of the biggest game in the longest time.
There must be 50 ways to lose in five
If I might briefly eulogize the Montreal Canadiens 2013 season, they played far above expectations in the regular season and then were felled in the playoffs by shoddy goaltending and injuries in a five-game drubbing by the Ottawa Senators. Like it or not, the Maple Leafs could also lose in five tonight at the hands of the Boston Bruins. But were they to, it would be the only similarity between the two series.
For starters, the high-flying Canadiens offense went dry, managing just one three-goal game through the series, en route to a total of 7 goals scored. While not timely enough to produce wins, even without tonight’s game, the Leafs have still put up 10 goals. The Canadiens surrendered an average of 4.00 goals per game, on 30.2 shots a night. Contrast that with the 41.0 the Leafs have faced a night, giving up a similar 3.75 goals per game. In four games, James Reimer has faced more shots (163 to 154) than the Habs tandem of Price and Budaj did in five, keeping the Leafs in the series and the fans clutching their chests.
It’s rare that a five-game series ever offers the thrills of close battles, but the Leafs could do just that against the Bruins. Should they bow out, it’s still been one hell of a run.
Next year’s needs, today
The injuries to Mike Kostka and Mark Fraser are exacerbating a much bigger issue for the Leafs back end. If these playoffs have illustrated anything, it is that the Leafs are still very much a work in progress. While the picture is becoming clearer in nets and up front, the Leafs do not have either the strength or skill on the back end to contend with the league’s best forwards. Hence Reimer seeing 41 shots a night, and why the Leafs are losing this series.
As it stands, the Leafs have four defenders who should probably be returned in Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Franson and Gardiner, but still need to find a capable number two defense man and shutdown guy to solidify and upgrade upon the likes of Fraser or O’Byrne. It is quite unlikely that the Leafs can find such staunch defenders internally next season (sorry, Rielly fans, but he’s not suited or ready for either role… yet), so the club will need to look elsewhere for salvation on the blue line.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, this will be no easy feat, with a ridiculously weak crop of UFA D-Men available. Win or lose tonight, this deficiency can be corrected, but failing to do so will keep the Leafs from ever being a contender.
Kadri, continuity and contracts
As electric as he’s been this season, there’s been a different Nazem Kadri suiting up for the blue and white since he scored a hat trick on March 30. He’s tallied only goal since then, a span of 16 games including the playoffs, along with five assists.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the pending restricted free agent, as he’ll want get paid like 1.08 point per game player he was through the first 2.5 months of the season, though he’d be hard-pressed to ever come close again. Nonis would be wise to consider that Kadri has, at both the AHL and NHL level, pieced together some good half seasons while never having had the opportunity to complete a full 60-80 game season with one team.
Kadri, along with other RFAs like Alex Pietrangelo and Derek Stepan, could see their pockets lined with their herculean performances in a lockout-shortened season. Without the benefit of the old CBA, these players could expect to see hefty raises well above the recent norm, even while teams have to shed salaries to get under a reduced cap. And Kadri, with his recent stumbles, will soon be the poster boy for what will be an intriguing storyline.
Reimero, Reimero, wherefore art thou?
I’m not about to dump on James Reimer for his performance this post season. He’s been given an even tougher workload against one of the best teams in the East and still kept his head mostly above water. But he entered the playoffs having featured in 19 games where he allowed two or fewer goals this season. He’s only managed to do that once in post season, unsurprisingly in the Game 2 victory last Saturday.
While he’s not the reason the Leafs are trailing, he’s also not helped them get the lead in the series either. Tuukka Rask can say that about his play; and while there’s no shame in being second best, it’ll come as small comfort to fans in Hogtown.
Very simply, if the Leafs have any chance of stretching this series out, let alone winning it, Reimer is going to have to steal a game. No time like the present, eh?