At the moment the Toronto Maple Leafs are occupying the 8th and final post season position in the Eastern Conference. In reality though the Leafs actually have the 7th best winning percentage amongst that conference, yet due to the Ottawa Senators having played more games they currently sit in that spot. Since winning percentage is a more precise way of reading the standings I’d like to take the top eight teams (based on winning percentage) in the East and imagine what would happen if the playoffs began today. If the post season did begin today the match-up’s in the Eastern Conference would be as follows:
1. New York Rangers vs 8. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins vs 7. Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Florida Panthers vs 6. Pittsburgh Penguins
4. Philadelphia Flyers vs 5 . New Jersey Devils
As seen above the Leafs would square off with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in their first playoff series in eight years. Considering the dominance that the Bruins have had over the Leafs this season realistic expectations would have the Bruins making quick work of the young and inexperienced Leafs. The Leafs have gone 0-4-0 against Boston this season being outscored 23-6 in those contests. Would the Leafs bow out that easily though? Personally I think the Leafs have gotten a bit of a bad rap in those games versus the Bruins this season. The first contest had Jonas Gustavsson start his first game of the season, and a tired Leafs team (playing their fourth game in six nights) were no match for the rested Bruins. The second contest saw the Leafs start rookie goalie Ben Scrivens in his first ever home start on Hockey Night in Canada in front of his friends and family. The third loss was a close one goal game that once again saw Gustavsson between the pipes. The final game was one in which saw #1 goalie James Reimer return to action for the first time in six weeks. All in all the Bruins deserve full credit for defeating the Leafs easily, but I think the Leafs haven’t faced their divisional rival with their best lineup yet. Of course the Bruins are a more dynamic and dangerous team, but I wouldn’t cash that cheque just yet.
What if Brian Burke manages to pull off a trade and upgrade his top six with some skill and size? The Bruins have handled the Leafs due mostly to the fact that Bruins defenseman – and reigning Norris trophy winner – Zdeno Chara has been able to eliminate Leafs offensive catalyst Phil Kessel. Should Burke acquire a forward to combat Chara perhaps the Leafs’ odds improve? In the end I don’t think the Leafs can defeat the Bruins in the playoffs, but I hardly think the big bad Bruins are as invincible as people make them out to be. However what would happen should Chara suffer an injury? The Bruins without Chara are a team that I think the Leafs have every capability of playing with.
Once again for arguments sake imagine the Leafs eliminate the Bruins. I foresee the Rangers to make easy work of the dysfunctional Capitals. The Penguins should defeat the Panthers, and I also see the Flyers just having too much depth for the aging Devils. That would give us a second round of:
1. New York Rangers vs 7. Toronto Maple Leafs
4. Philadelphia Flyers vs 6. Pittsburgh Penguins
For the second straight series (all hypothetical of course) the Leafs would enter as heavy underdogs versus the Conference champion Rangers. At the moment these two teams have played three times this season with the Leafs defeating the Rangers twice in New York while the Rangers easily handled Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. While most people will sit back and remember the final meeting in which the Rangers dominated the Leafs 3-0, keep in mind that the Leafs were just as dominant on both occasions at Madison Square Garden earlier this season. The Leafs’ speed is a weapon that the Rangers visibly had problems with. Should the Leafs maintain this commitment to defense and discipline that they have discovered of late I don’t see any reason why they cannot challenge the Rangers who are not the juggernaut people assume them to be.
However following these two upsets this is where I think the Leafs’ road ends. I fully expect Penguins captain Sidney Crosby to return to their lineup and lead their team through to the Eastern conference final to face the blue and white. As demonstrated over the last couple of seasons Pittsburgh is more than just Crosby, but with him I think they are the class of the NHL. They would have the two best forwards in the NHL, one of the best goalies (if not the best) in Marc Andre Fleury as well as an underrated defense led by Norris candidate Kris Letang. The Penguins over the last three or four years have taken over from the Detroit Red Wings as the team for the fair weather fan to cheer for. At the moment I don’t think they’ve ever been stronger. Having watched the Penguins play the Leafs twice last week I was impressed by how solid their game was. They are the type of team that could defeat you in multiple ways. Whether it’s through special teams, offense, defense or just sheer physicality the Penguins (with a healthy Crosby) are the team to beat in the East. Therefore I don’t see the Leafs being able to compete with them. They may get lucky and squeeze one game out of the series, but I see the Penguins as a whale that will just swallow the young Leafs up.
While popular opinion would be to label me as a delusional Leaf optimist please consider that the playoffs hardly unfold the way people expect them to before they begin. The Leafs’ success is contingent on Burke upgrading his forward ranks and I don’t doubt his ability to do that for a second. Over the last little while the Leafs have been playing as a collective and not as an assortment of individuals. With an infusion of talent – and a return to form of James Reimer – the Leafs definitely have an opportunity to make some noise come the spring time.