Finally, It's the Year the Leafs & Avs Won't Disappoint
Denver Post Photo
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
For what seemed like an eternity, the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks were the epitome of National Hockey League playoff futility.
The organizations annually iced rosters that would convince many experts to say, “This will be the year,” and pretty much every year they ended up at or near the top of the standings in their divisions, their conferences and the entire league. They also made a habit of inventing new ways to be eliminated from Stanley Cup contention well before they should have been.
While Washington’s franchise futility dated all the way back to 1974 and the Caps had a longer run of postseason ineptness – especially for a team that has qualified for the postseason 32 of the past 38 seasons – the Sharks have advanced to the playoffs 21 times in 30 years and did manage a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2016 as well as four other trips to the Western Conference Finals – the most recent coming in 2019.
The Caps, on the other hand, have advanced to the conference finals only three times in their history – in 1990, 1998 and 2018 – and had only made one Stanley Cup Finals appearance before finally capturing the elusive trophy in 2018. San Jose advanced to the Western Finals one more time, in 2019, but the Sharks’ window seems to have slammed shut as 2022 marks the third straight season they have missed the playoffs.
Washington’s Ovechkin-era window also seems to be just about closed as the Caps have not won a playoff series since their Cup-clinching win in Las Vegas and enter the 2022 playoffs as the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference.
With San Jose finally having dropped from the league’s elite and Washington having finally won a title, the teams that enter the 2022 postseason bearing the weight of massive gorillas clinging to their backs are the Colorado Avalanche, and of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Avs and Leafs somewhat mirror the Sharks and Caps, although Colorado has enjoyed much more recent postseason success than any of the other three franchises.
Colorado hasn’t had an NHL franchise nearly as long as Toronto, and its fans haven’t been dealt nearly the amount of heartache the long-suffering Leafs fanbase has endured. In fact, Colorado won two Stanley Cups and advanced to six conference finals between 1996 and 2002 while Toronto hasn’t seen the conference finals since 2002 and hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2004. Oh, and the Leafs haven’t sniffed the Finals since they last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.
But both teams have emerged as elite regular-season performers over the last half decade. This will be Toronto’s sixth straight postseason appearance and the fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs for the Avs.
Expectations are always high in Toronto. The media pressure is intense, and the fans are rabid. Having a roster full of superstars like 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander only fuels that fire and ups the ante. When Stanley Cup-champion head coach Mike Babcock was hired a few years back it was a given that the Cup would finally return to Toronto, right?
Wrong. The Leafs have yet to advance past the first round during the Matthews era. To be precise, the last time they won a playoff series was 2004.
While the scrutiny in Colorado will never match what takes place in Toronto, the frustration felt by Avalanche backers also is palpable. The Avs have been among the favorites to win the Cup in each of the past three years only to fall in the conference semifinals every time.
Now, as we head into the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avs enter the postseason having accumulated the most points in the West and second-most in the league (119). The Leafs weren’t far behind with 115 points, good for the fourth-best total in the NHL, and they were one point from the third spot behind Carolina.
Unfortunately, in a scenario that seems fitting for the tortured Toronto fanbase, the Maple Leafs play in the same division with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers, who recorded 122 points, and the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who edged Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Tampa Bay’s season-ending victory over the New York Islanders Friday ensured that the Lightning would face Toronto in the first round. That’s right everybody, as a reward for their outstanding regular season, the Maple Leafs receive an opportunity to take on the back-to-back champs! What else have they won, Johnny … ?
While that is the type of early-round matchup us neutral hockey fans crave in the postseason, that collective sigh you heard a few days ago coming from the North was a big “you’ve got to be kidding me” breath of frustration.
Here’s what makes this Toronto team different, though.
The Leafs played the Bruins in their last regular-season game Friday. A win for Boston paired with a Lightning loss would have propelled the Bruins past Tampa Bay and into a first-round matchup against Toronto. Even though a Lightning win would have kept them in front of the Bruins, the entire hockey world expected the Maple Leafs to roll over and tank in hopes of an Islanders’ miracle that would prevent Toronto from playing Tampa Bay right away.
But these aren’t your dad’s Maple Leafs; this is a confident group that looked its checkered past in the eye and said, “We don’t care who we play. You have to beat the best to be the best, anyway. Bring ‘em on!”
Toronto came out and rolled Boston on Friday, sprinting to a 3-1 first-period lead and never easing off the gas on the way to a 5-2 victory. That type of effort was completely unexpected and sent a message to the rest of the NHL. This Leaf’s team that set franchise records for wins and points isn’t doubting itself or afraid of anyone.
“You want to leave here feeling good,” Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly said after the Boston game. “You don’t want to leave feeling down in the dumps after going minus-five or something. I think we accomplished what we wanted to do. I thought there were guys who played more minutes than usual and took on different roles and did a great job. So, for us, I think we’re in a good spot to leave here and use the next two days to prepare for some important hockey. That’s all tonight was about.”
For Nylander, at this point there is no looking back – not to yesterday, last month, last season or the last 50-plus years.
“What matters it’s what’s going to happen now,” he said. “We’ve just got to dial it up now and get ready for Tampa. We want to have a great practice first of all Sunday and start getting ready mentally for what comes next.”
And while Maple Leaf supporters understandably are pessimistic this time of year, they also are loyal, vocal and able to provide a home-ice advantage for their team that rivals any in the league. It should be a wild scene Monday night at 7:30 p.m. ET as they get to fill Scotiabank Arena for the first time in the postseason since before the COVID outbreak.
“It’s huge,” Rielly said. “We’ve missed it. We know how much the fans mean to us, and to have them back in the building with the buzz in the city is going to be a special feeling for sure. Our goal is clear. We understand how we need to play. Now it’s about executing and performing at the most important time of the year.”
The addition of former Norris Trophy-winner Mark Giordano at the trade deadline was the type of move to improve the defense that Toronto has not been able to pull off in the past. The Leafs lost goalie Frederik Andersen to Carolina in the offseason, but as good as he can be, he also has been part of past postseason failures and currently is injured. Jack Campbell is beloved in the locker room and more than capable of backstopping Toronto deep into the playoffs.
The goal is clear for the Avalanche, too. Although neither team’s championship window is shutting anytime soon, when you have generational talents like Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Matthews on your roster, there always seems to be a fear of letting their best years go to waste.
On the flip side, sometimes it takes many failures and years of postseason experience for teams led by younger players to figure out what it takes to win the Cup. There’s a reason it’s the most-cherished and difficult trophy to win in sports. In some ways, MacKinnon and Matthews seem like they have been around forever, but they are just 26 and 24 years old, respectively.
Matthews’ supporting cast features the 24-year-old Marner and 26-year-old Nylander, while MacKinnon is surrounded by young players such as 25-year-old Mikko Rantanen, 23-year old Cale Makar and 23-year-old Samuel Girard. Time is hardly running out on these two organizations, but elite young talent leads to high expectations.
Always an up-tempo and highly skilled offensive group, the Avs solidified their defense over the past two seasons by adding veteran netminder Darcy Kuemper and defenseman Devon Toews.
“You keep learning as you go,” Toews told assembled media May 1. “There are different things that happen and different things you aren’t used to. I think we’ve got really good rapport that we’ve built, but the games change. You’re playing against different lines, playing with different lines. We’re trying to control what we can control on the back end and do what we can to help our team every night.”
Toews was a stalwart on the blue line for defensive-minded head coach Barry Trotz on and Islander team that got within one step of the Stanley Cup Finals, and Kuemper has long been one of the league’s top – albeit one of its most under-appreciated – goaltenders. Kuemper ranked fifth in save percentage (.921) and wins (37) among regular starting goalies this year.
“It’s a new group this year,” Makar said. “We have a new opportunity and a new challenge. Obviously, we know what’s happened these past few years, and we’re driven to overcome the challenges that have hindered us in the past.”
Colorado has a balanced mix of youth and veteran leadership, including 34-year-old character-forward Andrew Cogliano, maturing 31-year-old center Nazem Kadri and forward Gabriel Landeskog.
A former Leaf who is familiar with Toronto’s annual postseason failures and has endured his own personal failures, Kadri posted a career year with 28 goals, 87 points and a plus-13 rating. Cogliano, a veteran of 1,140 NHL games who once played in 830 consecutive contests, competed in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals as a member of the Dallas Stars. Landeskog, an 11-year NHL vet, still hasn’t turned 30 and has recorded fewer than 52 points in a full season of games just once.
There’s no doubt that Toronto and Colorado have what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Both rosters have as much talent and depth as anyone. They’ve dealt with high expectations and disappointments, learned from their setbacks, made the necessary adjustments to fix the areas of concern and appear primed to make deep playoff runs.
This is the year.
They both will get there.
Sorry Toronto, but you’ll have to wait another year to plan the parade.
It will be Colorado hoisting the Cup after a classic seven-game series win against your beloved Leafs in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Stanley Cup Playoff Roundup
A quick look around at the upcoming playoffs and first-round matchups:
Best Series – Toronto vs. Tampa Bay
This is a tough call considering that the Carolina-Boston series should be outstanding as well, but it’s just too hard to ignore this one. These two teams are filled with talented players who are worth more than the price of admission. The Leafs are coming off a record-setting regular season, have added key pieces, are another year wiser and are the younger team. Tampa Bay has lost some key components from its back-to-back Cup-winning teams and has to be at least a little worn down after two deep championship runs. The chances of a three-peat also seem remote.
Leafs in seven.
Most Underrated Series - St. Louis vs. Minnesota.
These are just two solid, well-coached teams. The Blues caught fire late in the year much like they did prior to their 2019 Stanley Cup run, and Minnesota has quietly put up an impressive season while somehow staying off the radar. The Wild also have a Stanley Cup-winning goalie now. So do the Blues, but Ville Husso played in more games than Jordan Binnington and compiled better numbers.
Wild in seven.
Most Interesting Series - Washington vs. Florida
Back in 2012 the high-flying, youthful Washington Capitals led by budding superstar Alex Ovechkin rolled into the playoffs with 121 points as Presidents’ Trophy winners and overwhelming favorites against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Montreal upset the Caps in seven games. Until Washington won the 2018 Stanley Cup, there were questions as to whether the Caps could play the disciplined style it takes to win a championship. They did. Now the question is if their veteran lineup still can do that against the younger, faster and highly skilled Presidents’ Trophy winners from Florida. And what will happen if the Panthers can’t open things up offensively against the veterans from D.C.? The Caps have the coaching edge. Goaltending is a wash. Washington has more experience and a solid, veteran defense. If the Caps can steal a game early in Florida, this one could go the distance. Then it’s anyone’s series.
Panthers in six.
Biggest Upset – Boston vs. Carolina
The fact that excellent teams like Toronto and Carolina have to face opponents such as Tampa Bay and Boston in the first round seems criminal. The Bruins looked to be on cruise control for most of the regular season yet still finished just a point behind the Lightning for third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston is deep up front and on the back end with plenty of veteran experience. The window of opportunity also may be closing for the core Bruin superstars. They should be motivated. The Hurricanes have been one of the league’s best and most consistent teams in capturing Metropolitan Division titles the past two seasons. They really have no weaknesses and are well-coached. Frederik Andersen’s absence may be just enough to turn the tide in this one.
Bruins in seven.
Upset Special No. 2 – Pittsburgh vs. N.Y. Rangers
Many in the hockey world were skeptical of the offseason moves made by the Rangers and expected them to take a step back after missing the playoffs last year. Instead, they came together quickly and turned in a remarkable regular season, finishing second in the Metro thanks in large part to the Vezina-level goaltending of 26-year-old Igor Shesterkin. Chris Kreider providing scoring depth to the tune of 50-plus goals was the boost that top forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad needed to help balance the production load, and the team added the right amount of grit to provide two-way support to their impressive young defensive group of Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller and Ryan Lindgren. However, regression is due. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan is one of the top coaches in the league. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Letang are still elite players. The team has depth, experience and strong goaltending. On top of it all, this may be the last hurrah for this core group of Penguins. They have at least one more big series in them.
Penguins in six.
Other First Round Series
Avalanche over Predators in 5
Flames over Stars in 6
Oilers over Kings in 6
Western Conference Semifinals
Avalanche over Wild in 6
Oilers over Flames in 7
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Maple Leafs over Panthers in 6
Bruins over Penguins in 6
Western Conference Finals
Avalanche over Oilers in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
Maple Leafs over Bruins in 7
Stanley Cup Finals
Avalanche over Maple Leafs in 7