For an original-six franchise that is over a century old team records are difficult to achieve. When the National Hockey League season began in October observers of the Toronto Maple Leafs might have been excused for turning their attention elsewhere. After numerous playoff disappointments (some might say failures), why bother watching the regular season? It only mattered what the Leafs did once the playoffs started again.
Some considered it a possibility that the Leafs might miss the playoffs altogether or be destined for a wildcard spot. After all, they were returning to the Atlantic Division. Back to facing division rivals and Stanley Cup contenders like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and Florida Panthers. Also, the Montreal Canadiens had defeated the Leafs in seven games and went to the Stanley Cup Finals. It was unlikely that the Leafs would repeat the stress-free first-place finish that they achieved in the temporary all-Canadian division due to the pandemic.
It seems laughable now. This team treated their fans to a memorable season. Hopefully, you are not just tuning in.
Auston Matthews Milestone the Top Highlight
After suffering through a season-long five-game goal drought Auston Matthews hit the magical 60-goal mark in typical fashion. He buried a wrist shot to the top corner in Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings. A highlight that Leafs fans will never get tired of seeing. This came after he displayed quick hands on a deke from in tight earlier in the game for goal number 59. Two of the latest eye-catching moments in a season full of them from hockey’s newly crowned top sniper.
The recent drought was over. The hometown fans serenaded him with the overly used “MVP! MVP!” Following this came chants of “Aus-ton Mat-thews”. You will have to excuse the home crowd for being delirious. It’s been a long time since their team had a legitimate favourite for the Hart Trophy.
Despite his slow start to the season and his recent funk, Matthews became the first player in a decade to hit sixty goals. Along the way, he passed Rick Vaive‘s team record for goals in a season. He didn’t score in every game this year. It just seemed that way.
This Leafs Team Reached New Heights
Matthews’ goal-scoring was the biggest individual accomplishment this season, but this edition of the Leafs reached new heights. First, a team record 113 points, shattering the previous record of 105. To this point, a franchise-best 53 wins. Among those wins, 30 of them came on home ice. Again, another record. The Leafs can add to all of these new team bests with a victory in their meaningless season-finale against the Bruins.
They head to the playoffs equipped with the league’s best power-play unit. The penalty-killing unit has been ranked in the top ten all year and leads the league in shorthanded goals scored. They boast six 20-goal scorers and have three lines capable of scoring as part of a top-five ranked offence. Their goal differential is also ranked in the top five.
Outside of the top line, head coach Sheldon Keefe has interchanged his forward groups most of the year. The defence group has more depth than any recent edition of the team. Players are familiar with each other, which should allow for flexibility. Inevitably injuries will occur or roster-shuffling might be needed to change momentum during the playoffs. When this happened during the season, the Leafs proved capable of making adjustments.
Team Deserves High Marks But Concerns Remain
Followers of the Leafs are not familiar with the word confident, especially when the flowers begin to bloom. This team still has some questions. The team’s goals-against average ranks in the lower half of the league. Typically, championship teams defend better. Goaltender Jack Campbell has struggled, at times, with consistency. Recently, his play has been trending upward.
Team toughness and grit have always been a giant question mark with this team. Until they prove otherwise, the “soft” label will follow them. They also have to navigate their way through the unforgiving gauntlet that is the Eastern Conference. However, this does appear to be a team that genuinely cares for one another and gets excited about each other’s accomplishments, while understanding the ultimate team goal.
Looking back at the preseason expectations for this group, their regular season deserves much credit. For achieving some of the aforementioned franchise bests, an A-minus seems appropriate. Of course, the only grade that matters is still to be determined. But, dream on Leafs fans. This just might be the year.