In sixth place with 11 games remaining in the regular season, safe to say things are looking pretty good for the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the playoffs.
But it won’t be easy.
Here are seven things the Leafs need to prove the rest of the way to set themselves up for a long postseason run.
1. Frederik Andersen is rested
Goaltending is arguably the most important position in the NHL, and now that Frederik Andersen has suffered an upper body injury, Toronto can’t take any chances.
Andersen has 33 wins this season, and one more would be a new season high for him as a member of the blue and white. Two more victories, and Andersen ties his personal best 35 win season set in 2014-15 with the Anaheim Ducks.
But again it’s best Toronto plays it safe, especially considering the Leafs aren’t lacking in quality reinforcements.
Andersen injury forces Leafs to call up Garrett Sparks on emergency recall.
— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) March 15, 2018
Garrett Sparks leads the American Hockey League (AHL) with 1.78 goals against average, is second in save percentage (0.936 per cent) and ranks third across the AHL in wins. And remember this is the guy the Leafs have going in as a backup to Curtis McElhinney, who has helped the Leafs secure points in 10 of his 14 starts.
He also made the “save of the season” last April against Sidney Crosby, helping Toronto earn a playoff position after a full campaign for the first time since 2003-04. Remember this?
McElhinney’s record this season is 9-4-1 and he has a 0.931 save percentage. I don’t think many pucks are getting by these two, so rest Andersen until the games that matter most.
2. Auston Matthews is in top form
Auston Matthews has missed eight games since separating his shoulder Feb. 22 against the New York Islanders, but is inching closer to a much anticipated return.
Still, without Matthews in the lineup, Toronto has been respectable, which speaks volumes to how good this team really is. Consider the stats below, and remember these were generated before Toronto’s last three games, where the Leafs scored 16 goals combined and won each contest.
#Leafs With & Without Auston Matthews This Season:
With – 32-16-5, 3.34 Goals/Game & 32.4 Shots/Game
Without – 7-6-2, 2.67 Goals/Game & 30.2 Shots/Game
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) March 9, 2018
The Leafs are having a great year, which means they can afford to play mediocre hockey down the stretch. If Toronto wasn’t 14 points ahead of the next closest team in the division, EVERYONE would be panicking.
3. Mitch Marner is playing the best hockey of his career
Remember when everyone was getting on Mitch Marner’s case for not scoring goals? I don’t either, because he’s been killing it in every category since then.
Mitch Marner’s career excellence despite still being only 20 is something rare to see in #Leafs history, as he’s now tied with idle teammate Auston Matthews for 3rd on this list pic.twitter.com/3iMA560gX2
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) March 15, 2018
With Matthews out, Marner has stepped up as a main contributor. He leads the Leafs with 59 points, and is poised to set career highs across the board.
We’re talking goals, assists, points, shots on goal, EVERYTHING. He also has a higher shooting percentage, more power play points, and is winning 52 per cent of his draws compared to 38 per cent last year.
Expect to see more tape passes and highlight reel goals from Marner in the postseason.
4. Jake Gardiner isn’t a choker
Since Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators over two years ago, it’s only natural Leafs fans sought another target to rip on.
Jake Gardiner is so ridiculously bad at the stuff defensemen are supposed to be able to do.
— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) December 31, 2017
Well, that’s a bad decision by Jake Gardiner
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) April 22, 2017
Jake Gardiner, like a lot of excellent offensively skilled D-men, just has no real panic button. He’ll also never magically find one.
He does more good than bad, but god is he frustratingly poor at recognizing what should be “Oh SHIT” moments.
— Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) March 6, 2018
Of course I’m talking about Jake Gardiner, but the ironic thing is the guy’s actually having a really strong season offensively and defensively.
He’s on pace for a new career high in points, already has a career high in assists, and has a positive plus/minus two years running (as unreliable as the stat may be). His numbers are essentially equivalent with Morgan Rielly, aside for the fact Rielly’s been on the ice for more goals against.
In the defensive end, Gardiner’s also made some great plays, but they seem to be ignored by Toronto media.
With Gardiner you really never know what he’s going to do, but entering the postseason there’s no way he can choke. He’d never hear the end of it, and Toronto will need him feeling confident and at his best if they hope to have a long playoff run.
5. Nazem Kadri is one of the best pests in the league
Nazem Kadri is one of Toronto’s biggest pests, and the Leafs will need him to continue driving opponents insane – and into the boards – this spring.
And it’s not just the average guys, but the superstars that hate playing him too. Remember when Alex Ovechkin flipped Kadri in Game 6 last year?
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) April 24, 2017
This is what we need to see again, and the best part about it? Not only is Kadri annoying as hell, but he’s really good, too, on pace for his second consecutive 30-goal season.
6. Kasperi Kapanen can play
If Toronto has hopes to go anywhere this spring, Kasperi Kapanen needs to be on the ice every night.
He’s been back and fourth between the AHL Toronto Marlies and Leafs way too much this season, which is strange given his amazing work last year.
Golden goal at World Juniors
Tying goal in Leafs playoff clincher
Double OT winner in Game 2
Kasperi Kapanen magic in big moments
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) April 16, 2017
And let’s not forget Joe Bowen’s call… Who’s to say we can’t expect more of the same?
Of course his consistency continued this year, as evidenced by this goal last week.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) March 11, 2018
Also he’s also one of the fastest skaters in the league. Toronto takes a lot of games using its speed to win puck battles, and Kapanen fits right in with this playing style. He’s only in the bottom six because of Toronto’s incredible forward depth, but this reality makes him way more dangerous to play against.
kasperi kapanen uses his speed on the penalty to strip sergachev trying to exit the zone. he immediately draws a penalty and gets a shot on net. pic.twitter.com/DKQA74rglt
— dylan fremlin (@DylanFremlin) February 27, 2018
Nobody ever sees him coming.
7. Tomas Plekanec has gas left in the tank
At 35 years old, Tomas Plekanec is nearing the end of his career, but he still deserves some time in the spotlight.
Since coming to Toronto on Feb. 25, Plekanec hasn’t really done much of anything. He has just eight shots in seven games, but I don’t remember any of those chances whatsoever, do you?
Still, maybe this will change when the Montreal Canadiens’ visit the Air Canada Centre this Saturday. Who knows, this might send the former regular 20-goal scorer on a tear just in time for the postseason. Plekanec is an unrestricted free agent this summer, which means with 11 games left he might be running out of time to ever score again.
But so long as his “turtlenec” game remains strong, Plekanec should be just fine.
With his tuque, his turtleneck and his all whites, Plekanec looks like he’ll head from here to a ski vacation in the Alps.
— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) March 4, 2018
As it currently stands, the Leafs have a lot of key injuries, but this should be viewed as an opportunity. If Toronto can win the lion’s share of games down the stretch, this speaks volumes. If they play respectable hockey, this speaks volumes.
The Leafs are in a great position, and if they meet these seven needs, they should be in line for a long postseason run – maybe even ending with a Stanley Cup.