The Toronto Maple Leafs head out of the Christmas break with a 20-14-4 record, placing them 12th in the league in points percentage and seventh in the conference.
All of a sudden, the Leafs look like a playoff team again, and a thrilling comeback win against the Carolina Hurricanes showcased exactly that. This article will examine Toronto’s roller-coaster season to date before looking forward to the road ahead.
Opening Stretch (Games 1-6):
|1||5-3 Win||OTT||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
|2||4-1 Win||@CBJ||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
|3||6-5 Loss (SO)||MTL (B2B)||Leafs blow 4-1 lead, led by Kasperi Kapanen throwing his stick.|
|4||3-2 Loss||STL||Leafs outplay St.Louis, Binnington is the difference.|
|5||7-3 Loss||TB||Leafs don’t show up, and get crushed by a good team.|
|6||5-2 Win||@DET||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
The Leafs opening stretch of the season will be remembered as a failed opportunity to bank points when they probably should have. They had a real shot at starting the season with four straight wins but completely threw away an extra point against the Habs and ran into a hot goalie against the Blues. They did not show up against Tampa Bay, but most Leafs fans were not expecting to win that game, even if they did expect a closer matchup.
The third period against the Canadiens was inexcusable, especially for Kasperi Kapanen. I loved their game against the Blues and it felt like the Leafs could have easily had ten points out of a possible twelve. Instead, they were forced to settle for just seven.
Final Outcome: 7 points in 6 games
The Next Five (Games 7-11):
|7||4-2 Win||MIN||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
|8||4-3 Loss||@WSH (B2B)||Leafs blow two goal lead with Hutchinson in net.|
|9||4-3 Win (OT)||BOS||Leafs steal two points despite being significantly outshot.|
|10||4-3 Loss (OT)||CBJ||Leafs give up two early goals, fail to capitalize against weak opponent.|
|11||4-2 Loss||@BOS (B2B)||Leafs lose a tough road game on the second half of a back-to-back.|
The Leafs ran into a tough schedule here, as Washington and Boston are hard matchups on any given night let alone on a road game during the second half of a back-to-back. The Hutchinson-led Leafs lost both of those games; there’s room to debate whether Toronto’s backup should have played the easier matchups against Minnesota and Columbus.
While they did take care of business against a weaker Wild team, it felt like they ran into a wall shortly after. John Tavares missed the last three games of this stretch and the Leafs were probably quite happy to take three points out of a possible six. Five points in five games was fairly acceptable given the schedule and Tavares injury, but when you looked at the standings, you couldn’t help but remember their failed opportunities to bank points during their first five games.
Final Outcome: 5 points in 5 games
Six Games of Hope (Games 12-17):
|12||4-1 Win||SJ||Leafs win deservingly after holding opponent to 17 shots.|
|13||5-2 Loss||@MTL (B2B)||Leafs give up 3 unanswered in the 3rd, lose second half of a back to back.|
|14||4-3 Loss (OT)||WSH||Leafs lose close game in overtime- Ovechkin is good at hockey.|
|15||4-3 Win (SO)||@PHI||Leafs steal two points despite being significantly outshot.|
|16||3-1 Win||LA||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
|17||2-1 Win (OT)||VGK||Leafs beat tough opponent in a goalie dual.|
Toronto picked up at least a point in five of these six games, despite being without Tavares for the first four of them. While they probably did not deserve the win against Philadelphia, they did manage to beat two tough opponents in San Jose and Vegas and only lost in regulation in the game that Hutchinson played. The Leafs simply aren’t the same calibre of team without Tavares, so it’s tough to view this stretch as anything but a success.
When Andersen played, the Leafs got at least a point. An 8-5-3 record after 16 games certainly didn’t call for a parade, but at least Tavares was back, while Hyman and Dermott were getting closer. Life wasn’t all that bad in Leafs Land.
Final Outcome: 9 points in 6 games
The Fireable Six-Game Losing Streak (Games 18-23):
|18||3-2 Loss (SO)||PHI||Leafs play quite well, but only pick up one point.|
|19||5-4 Loss||@CHI (B2B)||Leafs have horrible first period, then nearly come back.|
|20||5-4 Loss||@NYI||Empty net goal ends up being the game winner.|
|21||4-2 Loss||BOS||Leafs lose a close game to a tough opponent.|
|22||6-1 Loss||@PIT (B2B)||Leafs get blown out by Penguins without Crosby or Letang.|
|23||4-2 Loss||@VGK||Leafs lose close game against tough opponent (one ENG)|
This was the stretch that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era in Toronto. The Leafs had two back-to-backs here and five out of six games were on the road, but that was no excuse to lose all six games. While there were several close games here that just did not go their way, they completely failed to show up during the second half of both back-to-backs. A 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh — who didn’t even have Crosby or Letang in their lineup — was the tip of the iceberg.
Mitch Marner got injured near the end of the Philadelphia game, and the Leafs proceeded to lose five straight. However, while you could blame injuries a little bit, there was never a valid excuse for picking up just one point in six games. After the Vegas game, it felt like a coaching change was practically unanimous in both the media and the fanbase.
Final Outcome: 1 point in 6 games
New Coach, New Hope (Games 24-26):
|24||3-1 Win||@ARI||Leafs take care of business in Keefe’s debut.|
|25||5-3 Win||@COLO||Leafs take care of business in first period, then barely hold on.|
|26||6-0 Win||@DET||Leafs take care of business against a weak opponent.|
The Sheldon Keefe era got off to a great start. The Leafs looked like a completely different team against Arizona, and the group looked to be revitalized. Tyson Barrie finally scored, Pierre Engvall burst onto the scene, and John Tavares gave a fun speech following the 3-1 win. The Coyotes may not be a Cup contender, but they are in the middle of a strong season and this was a nice road win.
After Nathan MacKinnon scored 30 seconds into game two of the Keefe era, the Leafs stormed back with four goals in the first 20 minutes. While they nearly blew it, and Colorado was without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, this was another nice road win. Barrie scored again, the struggling power play finally had a different look, and the Leafs long road trip was nearly over.
The Detroit game was a free two points. The Leafs scored two goals in the first 2:24, were up 5-0 before the game was five minutes into the second period, and a noticeably sick Jonathan Bernier was in net to replace an injured Jimmy Howard. An 11-10-4 record still didn’t call for a parade, but there were certainly a few reasons for optimism after a 3-0 start to the Keefe era.
Final Outcome: 6 points in 3 games
New Coach, Less Hope (Games 27-30)
|27||6-4 LOSS||@BUF||Leafs blow an early two goal lead with Hutchinson in net.|
|28||2-1 WIN (OT)||BUF (B2B*)||Leafs win close game in overtime.|
|29||6-1 LOSS||@PHI||Leafs collapse in the second half of the third period.|
|30||3-1 LOSS||COLO (B2B*)||Leafs lose close game against tough opponent, led by Spezza’s mistake.|
The Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first Buffalo game and had a real chance to go to 4-0 in the Keefe era, with Andersen scheduled to start the second game. A second-period collapse soon occurred, and while Hutchinson could have changed the game with one more save, he certainly wasn’t their only problem. With a 2-1 lead, four forwards got caught on the ice as Toronto’s power play expired, and a bad giveaway from John Tavares gave Buffalo’s best player a chance to tie the game. Auston Matthews had an even worse giveaway in the third, and it’s tough to win a game when your two star forwards each pick up an assist on an opposing goal.
Tavares scored the game-winning goal in overtime the next night, and that win felt incredibly important in terms of keeping the momentum going. In hindsight, knowing that the Leafs lost their next two games in regulation, that goal feels absolutely vital.
The Flyers game was closer than the box score suggests, as it was 1-1 until the 50-minute mark. Two points were there for the taking and the Flyers ended up taking them with key goals from Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny. This still felt like a typical loss after Joel Farabee’s empty-net goal, but two goals against in the final minute changed the story.
Final Outcome: 4 points in 5 games
The Bounce-back (Games 31-38)
|31||5-2 Win||@STL||Leafs jump out to early 4-1 lead, Binnington struggles.|
|32||4-1 Win||@VAN||Andersen stops 38 of 39, Tavares scores insurance goal with 5 minutes to play.|
|33||4-2 Loss||@CGY||Leafs take 2-1 lead into the third, before allowing 3 quick goals.|
|34||4-1 Win||@EDM||Muzzin and Holl shutdown McDavid, while Toronto’s third line steps up.|
|35||5-3 Win||BUF||Leafs jump out to 3-0 lead as Matthews puts on a show, then barely hold on.|
|36||6-3 Win||@NYR||3-3 tie after two, but Nylander, Marner, and Mikheyev score in the third.|
|37||4-1 Win||DET||Hutchinson nearly gets shutout, Leafs pull away in the third.|
|38||8-6 Win||CAR||Leafs jump out to early 3-0 lead, give up 5 unanswered goals, then Matthews and Marner lead an incredible third-period comeback.|
The Leafs desperately needed to bank points following their first rough stretch under Keefe, but a tough road schedule made this look quite challenging. A third-period collapse against the Flames briefly halted their momentum, but a strong defensive performance against Edmonton put this team back in the right direction.
A 3-1 road-trip was just what this team needed and their schedule was about to get easier. Matthews was a human highlight reel against Buffalo, the team outshot the Rangers 40-22, and Hutchinson finally came up big against Detroit. While a second-period collapse against the Hurricanes nearly dampened the holiday break, the Matthews-Marner duo went off in the third to lead the team to their fifth straight win.
Final Outcome: 14 points in 8 games
The Road Ahead
While three of their next four games are on the road, the Leafs will have another strong opportunity to bank points over the next week. The Devils are the second-worst team in the league at the moment and their lineup took a big hit following the Taylor Hall trade. While they’ll have to face the Rangers the next night, New York will also be playing in the second half of a back-to-back, and the Leafs will have home-ice advantage.
– I feel a little bit sorry for Michael Hutchinson. The Leafs blew a 4-1 lead against the Montreal Canadiens during his first start, which was led by Kapanen’s throwing the stick penalty. His next two games were on the road against Washington and Boston during the second half of a back-to-back and the Leafs were without Tavares for the latter. While this is all part of the job of being a backup goalie, he desperately needed to face an easier opponent in order to help gain some confidence. I liked how Andersen asked to play against the Avalanche at the start of the month, while the Red Wings were the perfect matchup for Hutchinson to turn it around. He’s had a tough year — there’s no question about that — but I do believe that he’s the second-best goalie in the organization.
– Toronto’s comeback win against Carolina had to feel awesome. The players got to head into the holiday break on a five-game winning streak with their most exciting win of the season on their minds. With two weaker opponents up next, let’s see if they can carry that momentum forward into the new year.
– I tweeted out my ideal lineup against the Devils a few days ago:
This would be my lineup on Friday vs NJ:
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) December 24, 2019
I was pleasantly surprised that Keefe’s practice lines had this exact lineup. While I’m not ready to commit to keeping Matthews and Marner together permanently, there’s no way that you would break them up after their performance against Carolina. I was not a fan of Nylander and Kapanen playing together, and Tavares may benefit from playing with a high-end offensive player like Nylander. The Tavares-Nylander experiment should be fun to watch and Kapanen should be a valuable depth scorer when his speed is matched up against third-pairing defenders. Engvall and Mikheyev bring a defensive conscience to their lines, while the fourth line has been playing well lately. It’s nice to be on the same page as Toronto’s head coach.