TORONTO (Apr. 30) — How fascinating and coincidental it was that the best regular season in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs coincided with the worst–ever season for the Montreal Canadiens? Rivals from the very beginning of the National Hockey League — 104½ years ago — the Maple Leafs and Habs have never been separated by 29 rungs in the standings. Until today. In the same realm, a final week of marginal suspense amid the 16 clubs that qualified for the 2022 Stanley Cup tournament has given way to potentially the greatest playoff scramble and spectacle of all time. As TSN rink–side analyst Ray Ferraro exclaimed on Friday night at Scotiabank Arena: “The sheer unpredictability of the Eastern Conference will be something to behold in the next two months.”
The Eastern playoff faction is separated by 22 points, but the lowest–ranked club, Washington, compiled 100 during the regular season. Which is also a first. Twice previously in the salary cap era (and the advent of “three–point” games with the shootout) have six clubs compiled 100 points in the East: 2005–06 and 2018–19. Never seven. And, again, never all eight. Until now. Yet another extraordinary coincidence has the Maple Leafs beginning their Stanley Cup pursuit on Monday night (May 2), the 55th anniversary of the club’s last NHL title. That Toronto will meet the defending Cup champion (Tampa Bay) in the opening round for the first time in more than four decades generates added curiosity. It was back in 1981 that an abysmal Maple Leafs outfit qualified with 71 points and got scorched by the New York Islanders in a best–of–five preliminary series, losing 9–2, 5–1 and 6–1.
Needless to say, expectation is infinitely higher in 2022.
Even without the seven “loser” points accrued during overtime or the shootout, the current Leafs would have finished with 108: three more than the previous franchise best. As it were, Toronto compiled a 54–21–7 record in 82 games for most wins, fewest regulation losses and most points (115) in a season — placing fourth in the NHL’s overall standings behind only Florida (122), Colorado (119) and Carolina (116). The Leafs scored 315 goals, second–most in franchise history to the 1989–90 club (337). And, a whopping 121 more in the same number of games than the goal–challenged team of 1997–98, which struck for 194 and missed the playoffs. With 60 goals, Auston Matthews became the greatest single–season scorer in club annals, counting six more than Rick Vaive in 1981–82 and equaling the total most–recently compiled, a decade ago, by Steven Stamkos of the Lightning.
Matthews (106) and Mitch Marner (97) combined for 203 points, seven fewer than the Toronto season mark established by Doug Gilmour (111) and Dave Andreychuk (99) in 1993–94. Matthews generated the fourth–most points in a Leafs schedule, trailing only Gilmour (127 in 1992–93), Darryl Sittler (117 in 1977–78) and Gilmour’s 111. Morgan Rielly put up 68 points (including a career–best 58 assists), the second–most in his career. Only Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Bryan McCabe have been so prolific among Toronto defensemen. Jack Campbell won 31 games in goal, increasing his Maple Leafs’ mark to a dazzling 51–14–9 over three seasons. A ten–game absence (Mar. 10–Apr. 2) prevented a shot at Frederik Andersen’s team record of 38 wins, established in 2017–18.
Which brings us to the most salient point: If the Leafs are to advance beyond the opening playoff round for the first time since 2004, Campbell must out–perform Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps not by a colossal margin… if Matthews and Marner can dust off their ineptitude from a year ago (one goal in the seven–game collapse against Montreal).
Should the M & M boys get harassed into submission yet again, Campbell will need to stand on his head.
Such is the peril of the awesome Atlantic Division, in which all three playoff qualifiers (Florida, Toronto and Tampa Bay) could win the Stanley Cup. Or, get torpedoed before the semifinals. Though often very good, it was Andersen who most–prevented the Leafs from advancing beyond the opening series in four attempts, primarily by allowing a soft goal (or two… or three) at the most–inopportune juncture. Campbell then got outplayed by future Hall–of–Famer Carey Price as the series progressed a year ago. There is no conceivable path, in a best–of–seven round against Tampa Bay and (potentially) Florida, for the Maple Leafs to prevail with the second–best goalie. Which puts enormous pressure on a man with seven career playoff starts… yet seven more than Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington of St. Louis in 2019 (or Montreal legends Ken Dryden, in 1971, and Patrick Roy, in 1986).
Inexperience, therefore, isn’t always the determining factor. Through a lengthy funk in the second half of the schedule, this corner maintained that Campbell has the goods to provide the Leafs Stanley Cup–caliber goaltending. Which he could do against Tampa Bay and still come up short; such is the quality, experience and playoff resume of the opening–round opponent. If Smilin’ Jack outshines Vasilevskiy, the Leafs can dethrone the Lightning.
ANDREI VASILEVSKIY (88) AND JACK CAMPBELL CONVERSE DURING THE NHL SKILLS COMPETITION AT THE ALL–STAR GATHERING IN LAS VEGAS, FEB. 5. THE EASTERN CONFERENCE GOALIES WILL BE AT OPPOSITE ENDS IN THE TAMPA BAY–TORONTO OPENING PLAYOFF SERIES. GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Which brings us to another wild card. Though most eyes around here will be on Mathews and Marner, the Leafs will need to slow down Stamkos, the Toronto native who put up a remarkable 10 goals and 26 points in Tampa’s final ten regular–season matches. Equaling the combined output of the M & M boys in their last 10 games — Matthews: 9–9–18; Marner: 4–4–8. Not since that terribly lopsided clash with the Islanders in 1981 has Toronto encountered such a first–round juggernaut as the Lightning. Which is largely why many in the mainstream media are preparing local hockey zealots by asking “what happens if the Maple Leafs lose in the first round yet again?”
For the longest time, I was onside with the masses: Another one–and–done must call for sweeping change in the front office and on the ice. Today, I’m less certain of that outcome, even after T–Bay put up an eight–spot on the Leafs (and back–up goalie Erik Källgren) on Apr. 22. If Toronto gets throttled in four or five games with Matthews and Marner generally silenced, then yes, there will be deafening cries for change. Conversely, and as I suspect, if the Maple Leafs bow out in a closely fought six or seven–game series, no shame will be cast upon the losing club.
The Lightning has, arguably, the best goalie (Vasilevskiy) and defenseman (Victor Hedman) in the sport.
As such, I’m calling Tampa Bay in six.
Yet nothing beyond a romp by either team will surprise me.
FIRST–ROUND STANLEY CUP PREDICTIONS:
Home–ice advantage in CAPITAL letters
FLORIDA over Washington in 7.
Tampa Bay over TORONTO in 6.
Boston over CAROLINA in 6.
NEW YORK RANGERS over Pittsburgh in 7.
CALGARY over Dallas in 5.
EDMONTON over Los Angeles in 5.
COLORADO over Nashville in 6.
MINNESOTA over St. Louis in 7.