For the first time in 21 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs are division champs.
Earlier today in the game preview, we recapped just how long ago it was that the Leafs last won a division title:
The last time this franchise clinched a division title, it was the year 2000, when a 100-point Leafs season was led by Mats Sundin, Steve Thomas, Jonas Hoglund, Igor Korolev, and Yanic Perreault in points scoring. The Y2K scare had just passed, George Bush was soon to steal the 2000 election, Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” and N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” were the current chart toppers, and the first X Men movie and Mission Impossible II were about to hit the big screen as the summer blockbuster films. Big Brother and Survivor were soon to debut their premiere seasons on television.
The #leafs have clinched first place in the North Division.
Incredibly, the last two seasons that happened were 1999-2000 and 1962-63.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 9, 2021
In this division-clinching win over Montreal, the Leafs showed the resolve that has gotten them through the ebbs and flows of the season with such consistently good results.
Down 2-0 inside 21 minutes after a clunker of a first period, Wayne Simmonds injected some energy into the proceedings by mixing it up with Josh Anderson, Jake Muzzin made a huge defensive play to negate a Cole Caufield breakaway, Jack Campbell came up with a critical save, and the team’s high-octane offense came to life from there, rattling off three goals from three different lines inside 12 minutes. As they have all season long, the team didn’t look back once in possession of the lead, moving to 24-2-4 when leading after two periods.
That’s the mark of a balanced, well-oiled Leafs team that can pick itself up in a variety of ways even when a game isn’t going so smoothly. Digging deep and clinching this division on HNIC against their likely round-one opponent (and age-old rivals) in the Montreal Canadiens is also noteworthy — this Leafs team that has had very few of the “no-show-in-a-big-game” moments this year that had become commonplace in past seasons.
Before the season started and in his press availabilities during the year, Kyle Dubas was not taking the bait when asked to make a proclamation about what his team needs to accomplish in the playoffs for this to be considered a successful season. Instead, he reiterated time and again that the first priority was achieving a consistently great level of performance throughout the regular season in order to better set the team up for the playoffs.
Sheldon Keefe also reminded his group a few weeks ago, as shown in a recent Leaf Blueprint episode, that the team had put itself in a good position before only to stumble down the stretch of the regular season — such as in the 2018-19 campaign, when the Leafs followed up a 36-18-3 start with a 10-10-5 finish, consigning itself to third-place in the Atlantic Division and setting the stage for yet another Game 7 nightmare at TD Garden in Boston.
By contrast, in April of this season, after a winless five game-stretch threatened to turn this divisional battle into a two- or three-horse race, the Leafs responded with their current 7-0-1 run to clinch. Their only other losing streak of note this season came during their 1-6-0 slump (the one win came in OT) in March; they responded with a 9-0-1 tear that included back-to-back wins over the Jets.
As a big part of the overall goal of properly dominating a regular season, Dubas mentioned the team’s need to become a more sound defensive group that doesn’t need to outscore its problems in its own end of the rink. The Leafs went from a bottom-10 team in goals against to a top-10 one this season.
That’s despite dealing with a goaltending crisis with its presumed number one entering the season in Frederik Andersen, and injuries that made the reliably good but unreliably healthy Jack Campbell unavailable at times. The team’s resilience in this respect was typified by the three-game sweep in Edmonton in late February/early March that was accomplished with three different goaltenders.
You can make a fair argument that this North Division is chocked full of mediocrity outside of Toronto, but this Leafs team has been guilty of playing down to its opposition in the past, and they deserve full marks for taking full advantage of their strength of schedule. The Leafs have held the lead for over 1500 minutes of their 54 games this season — easily the most time spent leading across the NHL’s 31 teams.
At least as far as regular-season performance goes, this has looked every bit like the balanced Leafs team — between its offensive skill, physicality, deeper blue line, overall defensive commitment — that fans have been pining for since the franchise turned the corner into the Auston Matthews era.
The reality is that no one is going to remember the North Division regular-season winner if it’s not the same team that emerges from the North Division playoff best-of-four as its Conference Final representative. The Leafs are at the stage where a 50-6-0 regular season wouldn’t satisfy a single fan or media member in this market if it isn’t proceeded by considerable playoff success. But the building blocks for playoff success need to be assembled in the regular season, and for the first time in far too long, the Leafs appear to have the foundation in place to do some serious damage in the Spring.