Egad! The Leafs Look Playoff Ready

TORONTO (Apr. 10) — While most of Leafs Nation is consumed by the media–driven race to 70 goals for Auston Matthews, I see elements potentially more exciting for fans of the Blue and White.

From my perspective, this is the Toronto club of the Core–4 era most prepared to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Please understand: I’m not predicting the Leafs will even survive the opening round, let alone win the big prize for the first time in 57 years. Quality of opponent in the Atlantic Division guarantees that one of Boston, Florida or Toronto will be sidelined after the first series. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to be the Leafs. Neither against the Bruins nor the Panthers. Unlike a year ago, when the Toronto hockey market was captivated by the “all in” strategy of former general manager Kyle Dubas, the current Leafs are finishing the regular schedule with a quiet efficiency that I haven’t noticed in years. Even the Matthews watch is being handled properly and respectfully by the player and his club. The other Leafs comment on the ever–climbing goal total only when asked, while Matthews continues on his remarkable pace with humility and a focus I’m either imagining, or is actually in place.

This could be… maybe… finally… the spring that No. 34 puts it all together. I’m sensing that Matthews and Mitch Marner are fed up with hearing and reading about their playoff inadequacies. While understanding there’s only one way to reverse the narrative. The M&M boys, of course, are accompanied by William Nylander, soon to be a 100–point man in his most–prolific National Hockey League season. I remember being so impressed when Lanny McDonald broke out of his early career slump with the Leafs. In the second half of the 1975–76 season, Lanny came alive on arguably the best forward line in modern franchise history: alongside Darryl Sittler and Errol Thompson. McDonald finished with 37 goals and 56 assists for 93 points… and was on his way to the Hall of Fame. In an era of much–superior goaltending, Nylander has 40 goals and 56 assists for 96 points.

But, there’s a factor of even greater significant with the Leafs: secondary scoring that has emerged in the latter half of the schedule. Throughout the Core–4 era, it’s been clear the Leafs will advance in the playoffs as far as Matthews, Marner, Nylander and John Tavares can carry them. Which hasn’t been particularly distant. And, no one can plausibly suggest a Stanley Cup challenge without at least two of the four carrying the team. But, the notion of scoring help from other parts of the roster is hardly delusional, given the second–half performances of Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, Bobby McMann, Matthew Knies and Nick Robertson. That group of five has contributed 73 goals, much of it since the calendar flipped. I am particularly drawn to Robertson, who I figured was too small to play in the NHL, even with his skill. What I didn’t realize, until recently, is that little Nick can be an ornery prick. I was impressed when he spoke out against languishing as a healthy scratch. And, more dazzled by his ability to walk the walk once given another opportunity. The closer I watch Robertson, the more I see a little Gilmour in his determination. If he adapts to the physical demand of the Stanley Cup hunt, the Leafs could have a sleeper.


Some of you may be wondering if this is actually Howard Berger at the keypad. Yes, it’s me. As much as I have criticized the club for its playoff misgiving of the past seven years, I have never withheld credit… when due. Like it is right now. I wrote the term “quiet efficiency” and I’m not certain there’s a better mindset with which to enter the playoffs. Surely, experience can no longer be a factor for the nucleus of the club. It turns out, after a rocky first half of the schedule, that GM Brad Treliving did a good job last summer augmenting the Maple Leafs. And, particularly by sticking with Robertson, who was the subject of much dialogue prior to the March 8 NHL trade deadline.

Others will be reading this and thinking “Berger, you’re nuts! What about the blue line and your theory of a Stanley Cup team needing a Norris Trophy threat? And, that the Leaf stars are all playoff soft?” Hey, nowhere have I forecasted a championship in 2024. But, I will remind you that the club’s second–tier defenseman, Morgan Rielly, is capable of elevating performance in the spring. If a couple of his multi–millionaire teammates join him in that pursuit, who knows what can happen? Yes, goaltending seems continually in flux. Even if we assume that Ilya Samsonov will be the starter in Game 1, we are less–certain about how he’ll perform. As I’ve pointed out on several occasions, in the years (after 1967) that Mike Palmateer, Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour and Frederik Andersen were on the team, nobody asked which goalie would start a playoff game. With the 2024 tournament less than two weeks away, we still aren’t certain whether Samsonov or Joseph Woll will man the position… or if either is capable of backstopping a lengthy playoff run. But, we didn’t know that about Palmateer (in the late–70’s) or Potvin (in the early 90’s). Until it happened. So, let’s wait and see what unfolds. Potential clearly exists.

If there’s an Achilles heel to the Maple Leafs, it’s the familiar and apparent lack of team toughness. And, I don’t mean Ryan Reaves beating up the opposition slugger in a staged match at center ice. I’m talking about the capacity to not only withstand the two–month playoff slog… but to establish the physical tone of games. Which the current Leafs have never been able to accomplish. How, then, does the club survive an opening–round tilt with Florida or Boston? You watch some of the big, heavy teams in the Western Conference (Dallas, Colorado, Vegas) and can barely envision the Leafs going toe–to–toe through seven games. But, that’s why they play the games. And, neither have we witnessed a Toronto playoff club being hoisted upon the shoulders of one of its regular–season superstars. Matthews and Marner, in particular, are way overdue in paying back the Leafs when it matters.

Perhaps summer will start for the Blue and White after six or seven games. As usual. But, what if Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Rielly catch fire in a bottle at the same time? With the sudden emergence of secondary goal output from Domi, Bertuzzi, McMann, Knies and Robertson? We don’t know the answer because it’s never happened. And, it may not in this attempt. But, there’s something about the Maple Leafs of the past five weeks that makes me wonder if the spring of 2024 could be rather special for the club’s enormous and resilient fan base.


Somewhere along the line, I purchased this 1959 football magazine at a collectors’ show. From the year I was born (yikes!). Thumbing through it the other day, I came across a story that should be of interest to those with a bend toward Toronto sports history. It was the year the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League moved out of Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto and into a renovated “theater” at the CNE, with its 20,663–seat grandstand (built in 1948) and a new 12,472–seat bleacher–stand on the south flank of the football field. The Argos played in the 33,135–seat stadium from 1959 through 1974, when the south bleacher was demolished to make way for baseball expansion. This story outlines construction of the bleacher–stand and how fans might react to vacating the familiar and comfortable confines of Varsity Stadium at Bloor. St and St. George Ave.


20 comments on “Egad! The Leafs Look Playoff Ready

  1. So, they mailed it in the last four games. And the chase for Auston’s 70th was disgusting. All in and nothing else mattered. Can we all now move on to the playoffs? Can we see some maturity, please? Lots of thoughts for next year when the times comes. Who to keep and who to let go and who to go out and get. Wonder which Leafs team will show up against Boston. Cheers. Go Leafs Go. If you can.

  2. Past three games Leafs were terrible. 16 goals against. Buttery soft, no heart, no brains. Tavares? Rielly? Are they star players? Really? Rielly had a good playoff playing alongside Luke Schenn last spring. But the brainiacs at Leafs management thought Schenn wasn’t worth bringing back, then they spent a third round pick to get Lyubushkin. Lyubushkin is nothing more than a seventh defenseman on any Nhl team. Schenn was a Leafs first round pick 15 seasons ago, and never should have left. He wanted to stay but the morons upstairs let him go twice, not seeing his value. How come casual fans can see his value but the professional scouts and management cannot? Leafs can play better than they have these last three games. What a Jekyll and Hyde team they are this season. But it feels like they don’t even deserve to be in these playoffs, let alone have any chance to win even a round against Boston. And what’s with the Tv media today? Holding vigil every minute of every day on Matthews’ goal totals? They take the fun out of it and make you sick of it. Stop! There’s lots of other hockey things to talk about.

  3. Like any other of the past seven playoffs really, Leafs are good enough to make things interesting, but usually fall short. This season they give up a lot of goals. Team defense and goaltending are the keys to success in the playoffs. And as a team can they grind out games and a series. Maybe they are slightly better suited for that. Hey Howard, will the Rumack and Berger Intermission show be up and running for the playoffs?

  4. So I was telling my wife she should read this blog and that you actually thought the Leafs have a chance this year except that they have one Achilles heel. But before I could tell what it was t she breaks out laughing and says, “Just don’t tell he said the ‘C’ word.”

  5. There’s no doubt that the overall team toughness has been improved and have played together longer than recruiting most of them at the deadline! While the entire “core” 4 disappeared for the second round last year, Tavares was the poorest of them. He MUST be much better this year! It does not appear that Marner has ever done anything to build more strength so he is tougher, however, Nylander obviously has and therefore is tougher this year. The biggest problem is this core refuses to play properly from the beginning of the season so that they’re a finely tuned team by the playoffs. 4th last game of the season they played improperly and that’s intolerable.

  6. LOL
    Robertson the ornery prick. I’ve always felt that someone like Robertson needs to step up in the playoffs for Toronto to win. IMO, Toronto’s defense is sub-par and spends too much time and effort digging the puck out of their own end. The only way Toronto wins is the proverbial “Shootout at the OK Corral”. It’s akin to going all in on every hand pre-flop while sitting across from Phil Ivey. It might just be the only way to win.

  7. My question is will there be change and, if so, how much change if the Leafs don’t make it out of the first round?

  8. Howard,

    After a decade without an invitation to the annual Spring dance the past 7 years have been refreshing but ultimately devastating as our dates all left us to dance with another partner after the first song ended. That was until last year when we finally earned the opportunity to take a twirl with a second companion. Most of us expect that the 8th time to Ball will still result in our carriage turning back into a pumpkin when the proverbial clock strikes 12.00. Still we can dream that the slipper fits and we get crowned as the Homecoming King.

  9. In the Varsity Stadium era of the Argos, they were often out drawn in terms of fans by the local Varsity Blues. This fact was told to me by Tom Watt, (yes, that Tom Watt), who was on the coaching staff of the Football Blues, before moving over to a stellar career as coach of the Men’s Ice Hockey team.

  10. Howard, I hope you have the cajones to post my response but knowing you, this post will merely be put in the cyber trash.
    You are a hypocrite! You continuously feed us with your posts that this team will never and I repeat never win a Stanley Cup with Matthews in the blue and white and now all of a sudden hell has frozen over and you have miraculously changed your tune. What gives? This team will not win a Stanley cup as currently structured, until the defense is addressed it will remain this way for years to come.
    I am positive that you will have some snarky response to this!
    If you actually post this and give a response, assuming I am worthy, kindly afford me the opportunity to respond to you unlike in the past when you do not allow me to retort!!


    1. First, may I suggest anger management. Then, once in control, read the blog again. I clearly wrote – twice – that I’m not predicting a Leafs Cup in 2024. I’ll post your reply if it contains a smidgen of accuracy. Otherwise, please take your attitude elsewhere.

  11. All I wanted to do while reading your piece Howard, especially your words about Lanny, was stand up inside Scotiabank Arena, break the deathly silence, and yell “Goooooooooooooo Auston Gooooooooooo.”

  12. I’m seeing the same thing as you, Howard. But too many teams have better D, goaltending, structure, and special teams – which tend to win out at playoff time. And we’ve yet to see the Core 4 raise their game when it matters most. Fingers crossed, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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