The past is the past. That should be the motto for the Toronto Maple Leafs as the 2022 NHL Playoffs begin. Despite a number of first-round exits in recent years, this spring could be very different for the Maple Leafs.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most exhilarating time of year, and all fans should be excited that their team still has a shot to win hockey's ultimate prize, even those in Toronto. It is easy to understand why they have some serious trepidation, though. The Leafs have now made the postseason in six consecutive years. In the previous five, they were eliminated in the opening round. To make matters worse, the last four series losses went the distance, and two of them came against the rival Boston Bruins.
Now that the haunting memories of the past have been revisited, we can look ahead to a potential deep playoff run by Toronto this season.
Any dreams of the Maple Leafs hoisting the Cup for the first time since 1967 begin and end with Auston Matthews. He has been one of the best players in the league since his rookie season in 2016-17, but Matthews has played at an MVP level this season. Matthews is the NHL's first 60-goal scorer since Steven Stamkos in 2011-12, and he has eclipsed the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Matthews also leads the NHL in expected goals at five-on-five (24.65), and Toronto controls an incredible 63.91% of the five-on-five expected goals share with him on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Matthews is the type of player that can put the team on his shoulders and turn the tide of a pivotal game, or even an entire series. If Matthews plays like a Conn Smythe Award contender, and there's no reason to believe he won't, Toronto has a great shot to get out of the first round and make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Of course, more than one name goes on the Stanley Cup after it's won, and the supporting cast around Matthews isn't too shabby. The usual suspects are still there in Toronto. Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares will all play big roles in any kind of playoff run for the Leafs. Marner and Nylander have both had career years, and being able to use Tavares as a No. 2 center is a luxury that not many teams have.
In addition to those high-end playmakers, a couple more weapons have emerged within the Maple Leafs' forward group. Michael Bunting is in the running for the Calder Trophy with 23 goals and 40 assists, and he is second on the team in expected goals at five-on-five with 20.26. Ilya Mikheyev, in his third season with the Leafs, has hit the 20-goal mark. Along with Alex Kerfoot, he gives the middle six some pop.
Another key reason that Toronto might be poised for a postseason breakthrough is that the team has been solid defensively this season, especially of late. Overall, the Leafs have allowed 152.99 expected goals against at five-on-five this season, which is seventh-best in the NHL. Since acquiring Mark Giordano ahead of the trade deadline, they have allowed 32.91 expected goals against at five-on-five, which ranks second. Being able to slot Giordano on the third pairing has bolstered a pretty balanced blue line that also includes Jake Muzzin, Morgan Reilly, T.J. Brodie, and Timothy Liljegren. To take a cliché from every analyst in every other sport, defense wins championships, and the Leafs have it this year.
The biggest area of concern for Toronto is in goal. After a hot start, Jack Campbell went through a deep rut in the middle of the season, but he has gotten back on track in the last month. In that time, Campbell has saved 4.23 goals above average. The good news for the Maple Leafs is that Campbell won't need to steal a series. Even average goaltending will give this roster a real shot to keep advancing.
There are reasons for people to doubt the Maple Leafs going into these Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a vast majority of those are rooted in the horrors of past postseasons. When it comes to the present situation, the team appears to be set up for success. Put those panic buttons away and get your hopes up like the rest of us, Toronto.