Defensive turnaround drove Leafs to the top
Give the D an A.
That's the Toronto Maple Leafs' team defence as a whole, not just what the six-man blueline group might have accomplished on any given night.
For Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, the defensive work is what propelled the team to its clinching of the North Division title on Saturday night with a win against the Montreal Canadiens.
“I look at where our team needed to grow and what our focus was,” Keefe said. “We felt really good about our team offensively. But we knew we had to get better defensively.
“Last season, we were pretty close to the bottom of the league at five-on-five goals against, and this season we're in the top five.
“I would put it there, the team's commitment to defending. We got good goaltending throughout the season as well, despite the fact that we had adversity and used four goaltenders.
“The fact that we're able to keep the puck out of our net is the biggest reason why were able to be as consistent as we were to maintain our spot atop the division.”
The turnaround is remarkable. In 2019-20, they were 28th in the NHL in goals against at five on five, allowing 157 in 70 games. They were fourth in goals for at five on five with 158.
In 2020-21, the Leafs were fifth at five-on-five goals against through games on Saturday, allowing 90 in 54 games. In goals for at five on five, the Leafs were second with 128.
A 70-game pace this season would find the Leafs at 117 goals against and 166 goals for.
How dominant have the Leafs been? They had been atop the North for 106 of the season's 116 days when they clinched.
With two games left in the regular season, on the road Wednesday in Ottawa and on Friday in Winnipeg, the club will have some extra time in the next while before the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway. The Leafs had Sunday off and will return to practice on Monday.
“We'll assess where our players are individually,” Keefe said. “Bumps and bruises, and the guys who have been pushing through things, we'll get a better handle on that.
“It's not as simple as giving guys games off. We've got to manage it well.
“Generally speaking, the guys who have been playing have been doing well and are healthy. I'm not really pushing to give guys games off. It's going to be depending on their energy and their health.”
CANADIENS ON TAP?
Within a few days, we'll finally learn whether the Leafs and Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1978-79.
Is it a safe bet that the post-season meeting between the longtime rivals will happen? One would think so, but it's not a guarantee.
The Winnipeg Jets are in third place in the North with 59 points, two up on fourth-place Montreal and with a game in hand.
The Jets have lost eight of their past nine games, though they could regain some confidence in their next two, both against the Vancouver Canucks at home, before playing host to the Leafs later in the week. Against the Canucks, the Jets are 5-2-0.
The Canadiens finish with a pair of home games against the Edmonton Oilers. On paper, that's a big test. On the ice, not so much, as Montreal has won five of seven meetings with Edmonton.
Whether it's the Canadiens or the Jets as the first-round opponent, the Leafs easily would be the favourite. Toronto was 7-2-1 against Montreal and is 6-3-0 against Winnipeg.
Leafs defenceman Justin Holl said it would be “a lot of fun” to face the Canadiens in the first round.
“There's a little animosity developing; it gets a little physical and chippy at times,” Holl said. “We're prepared for anybody and we're ready to go.”
Some of that choppiness landed on the desk of the Department of NHL Player Safety on Sunday. Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson was fined $1,000 for a dangerous trip on Leafs captain John Tavares toward the end of the second period on Saturday. Neither of the referees working the game, Marc Joannette and Graham Skilliter, called a penalty on the play.
ONE OF THREE
Five years ago, the Leafs ended their 2015-16 regular season on April 9 with a 5-1 loss in New Jersey against the Devils, entrenching Toronto in last place in the NHL in Mike Babcock's first season behind the bench.
From that club, three players — Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Zach Hyman — remain with the Leafs, while Martin Marincin and Rich Clune are with the Toronto Marlies.
For Nylander, having endured the tough times to reach a division championship was satisfying, but not completely.
“We've come a long way from where we started, and it has been a long process and a lot of hard work,” Nylander said. “We're not (fully) happy with this result. This is just a stepping stone for where we want to go.”
If Nylander records a point in each of the Leafs' final two games, he will end the regular season on a nine-game point streak. His career high is 12 straight games with at least one point, accomplished March 3-28, 2017.