All and all this was another really good week for the Leafs. They just picked up 7 points out of a possible 8, and remain at the top of the both the North Division and the league at large. Things are going really well. Still, there’s something to be said for giving up 5 straight goals against the worst team in the league to lose in overtime, and last night marked the one year anniversary from the Leafs losing to an emergency backup goaltender, who happened to be their own payroll. Those are tough losses, and no matter how good the Leafs are doing, these are hard things to shake. It’s in that context that I asked the TLN crew if there was anything we could learn from the Sens comeback win against the Leafs this week.
For me, honestly, I didn’t learn anything. The Leafs are first in the NHL and I believe we’re watching a team that we’ve never seen before. Although this loss was problematic I feel that we shouldn’t take this team for granted and I’m afraid we already are. Sure, I understand getting upset about an Ottawa Senators four-goal comeback, but I don’t think you should take it to the point of “they’re just the same Leafs team!” Because they’re not in my opinion. Adding veterans like Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds (who isn’t even in the lineup right now) has made this team stronger. Bringing in TJ Brodie too, I think this is the best defensive Leafs team we’ve seen in a long time. I get it, it’s a game where Toronto lost a huge lead, but they’re first in the league, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are having great seasons. I just think we should be grateful instead of falling back to the same narrative that they’re the same team because they’re not.
The big thing I learned from that loss is that the Leafs cannot take their foot off the gas pedal ever. Their compliancy after going up four goals on the last place Senators (or any other team for that matter) is inexcusable and will often lead to giving the opposition new life. The mentality of relying on their skills to win games has not fully gone away and that loss is proof that this Leafs team still has some work to do in order to become a more well-rounded unit. They did respond well on Wednesday but that needs to be a consistent thing.
I think what we should learn from this game is that despite how disappointing of a loss it was, we probably shouldn’t freak out too much to it. The Leafs are first in the league, and despite the comeback, actually had good possession metrics throughout the entire game, even in the third period when the Sens were pressuring for the comeback. It’s a random regular season game in February, and it was a pretty good example of the randomness that can happen in a single game of hockey. I try my best to not read too much into it unless it’s the start of a trend (which as the next two games showed us, it wasn’t), and hopefully the rest of Leafs Nation can take a deep breath, and relax and enjoy this team.
It’s easy to look at the Maple Leafs blowing a 5-1 lead to Ottawa and slam the panic button that this is “the same old team” and that they “haven’t learned their lesson”. While those thoughts may ultimately be the truth down the line, it’s probably not the right way to look at things right now. Here’s ultimately what it comes down to: hockey is stupidly random. Some public models had the Maple Leafs live win percentage well above 99%, and yet, they still found a way to mess things up. That’s not a slight against the models, it’s just so unbelievably improbable that the Maple Leafs managed to find a way to screw up against the Senators. Ultimately, there’s just so much randomness in hockey that sometimes things like that just happen.
So, what can we learn? Well, we should probably remember the randomness of hockey and how stupid it can get, especially as the playoffs creep ever closer. That doesn’t mean to throw your hands up and cower at the sport’s unpredictability, heck, if anything it’s all the more reason to embrace the strangeness of hockey. The Maple Leafs are unlikely to be the odds on favourites to win the Stanley Cup once the playoffs roll around on May 11th, however, that isn’t to say that they can’t do it. Sometimes all you need is a bounce here and a hot goalie there, and anything can happen. As long as you have the right core of players, which the Maple Leafs clearly possess, there’s plenty of reason to come out of that game with the memory of a goldfish and trudge further ahead into this chaotic season. I promise that it is not worth overreacting to what is ultimately nothing more than an OTL in the standings. We’re not here for a Monday night game in February against Ottawa. We’re here because we’re trying to win the whole darn thing.
While I appreciate a lot of the randomness, and brush it off attitude shared by the other writers here, and it is something that could have happened to anyone, I can’t help but feel these things almost exclusively happen to the Leafs. Maybe I’m not paying attention, but outside of the Patrik Stefan missing the empty net and the Oilers coming back to score on Dallas, I can’t think of another team experiencing a memorable collapse like the ones the Leafs seem to enjoy on almost an annual basis. I think the mindset expressed by the other writers is still essentially right, you can’t change your strategies based on the outliers, but I remain curious about what makes the Leafs so prone to outliers.
As for positive takeaways, I agree with the sentiment that the Leafs can’t take their foot off the gas. They aren’t strong enough in their own zone, and goaltending has been far too inconsistent of late to feel comfortable letting the opposition control the game. I think the Leafs coming back with the same lineup the next game was the right call. It gave the same players the chance to fix the problem, rather than sending the message that someone else is going to come in and fix it for them. I also appreciated the accountability that Keefe put on Nylander late in the game Saturday night with William Nylander. He was struggling throughout the night, and when others picked up the pace, he didn’t and he sat because others were playing better. I think Nylander is a great player, but taking advantage of the lopsided score to address an underwhelming performance made sense, especially since he had been given plenty of opportunities earlier to be involved.
I guess the lesson to learn is that it’s 20 humans out there, and sometimes they get in their heads. And sometimes too many of them can be in the wrong frame of mind and the same time and you can’t dig your way out. Toronto can certainly lend itself to those unique mindsets, and maybe that’s what causes the high number of strange games we see. For their credit, the Leafs couldn’t have responded any better, and the Maple Leafs now enjoy a nice lead in the division because of it.
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