TORONTO (Apr. 21) — Good lord, is this ever a season of black and white for the blue and white.
With no middle ground (or grey area) through 46 games, the fate of the 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs is solely dependent on which version of the club presents itself for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in three weeks.
If anything close to the current team, it’ll be ‘one and done’ for the fifth consecutive year.
If a semblance of the group the rocketed from the gate at 18–4–2 — or knifed through the all–Canadian North Division at 9–0–1 quite recently (Mar. 20 to Apr. 10) — possibilities abound.
Such potential seems distant at the moment with the Leafs enduring a pair of fundamental issues: they can neither score goals nor stop the puck. Failure, in any sport, is rarely so comprehensive. But, neither is everything lost… even in the unlikely event the club surrenders first place in the division. Home–ice advantage comes, significantly, with last line change, yet will not be a huge factor amid empty arenas in the pandemic. With ten games left on the schedule, there is sufficient time for recovery. Were the Hummer to amass 18 wheels (thanks again, Burkie), veteran Leaf watchers also know there is precedent for switch–throwing once the playoffs begin. The 1977–78 club, under rookie coach Roger Neilson — among the best Toronto sides in the post–1967 era — were a gaudy 39–19–10 after 68 games, only to finish the schedule in a 2–10–0 death–spiral. Three weeks later, the team was in the Stanley Cup semifinals for the first time in 11 years, having swept Los Angeles in a best–of–three preliminary round; then overcome 2–0 and 3–2 series deficits to the favored New York Islanders, famously winning the quarterfinal in Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum when Lanny McDonald beat Glenn Resch in overtime.
So, do not cash in your emotional chips just yet.
DAVID RITTICH AND THE LEAFS WERE DOWN AND OUT IN VANCOUVER LAST NIGHT, GETTING RAKED FOR FOUR THIRD–PERIOD GOALS IN A 6–3 LOSS TO THE CANUCKS. GETTY IMAGES/NHL
As mentioned, there is no mystery to the current 0–3–2 downturn.
Toronto has netted 11 goals and yielded 21. Few hockey clubs prosper with a minus–10 differential. The 40–million–dollar men are missing the net… and the start of meetings. Jack Campbell and David Rittich — in my view, an ultra–promising goalie tandem with which to move forward — reek at the moment. Even Sheldon Keefe is slumping, having allowed William Nylander to dress for last night’s game in Vancouver after being the late–for–meeting culprit. The best coaches are normally higher on discipline. They strongly denounce irresponsibility.
Neither is it explicable when bad things suddenly happen to a good team. The “how” is easy to determine; the “why”, far–more difficult. Jack Campbell carved out a National Hockey League record by winning his first 11 starts of the season. Right now, it appears that Naomi Campbell could block pucks more efficiently. Whatever has overcome Smilin’ Jack is evidently COVID–contagious, given the slop turned in by Rittich last night at Rogers Arena.
The engine that is paid to power the Maple Leafs has sputtered — John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander performing well beneath standard; astonishingly so with the man advantage. Any such flaw in the playoffs will quickly doom the Blue and White. Veterans Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, lionized early in the schedule, are now barely visible. Zach Hyman, a warrior, is missing in action with a knee–sprain.
The defense core — biblically devoid of a Norris Trophy candidate — appears vulnerable (to be polite).
No element, in fact, has any lift for the club right now.
Yet, there is sufficient altitude from which to recover.
Ten more games. Then… no more excuses.