By Ben Browne
As summer turned to fall and leaves began their yearly change of colour, hockey season was once again on the horizon.
The Leafs had nowhere to go but up after a 2015–16 campaign that saw them register but 29 wins and 69 points, and with it, a chance to draft the NHL’s next superstar, Auston Matthews, with the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
The draft lottery balls bounced royally for the Leafs, and they won the right to the first overall selection, unofficially beginning Matthews’ tenure in Blue and White on April 30, 2016.
They made it official less than two months later––June 24, 2016––and, right then and there, inside Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, Auston Matthews became the cornerstone of the Maple Leafs rebuild, and the face of the franchise for the next decade and a half.
Okay, so the Leafs had nowhere to go but up as the season was set to begin. But now, six and a half months later, no one could have even dreamed they would have gone this far up.
From dead last to pushing the NHL’s regular-season champs to the brink, this one-season-to-the-next turn around is one for the ages. The Leafs, led by Matthews and other young stars Mitch Marner and Willy Nylander, along with a supporting cast of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk among others, became just the third team since the turn of the century to make the playoffs the season after finishing in 30th place. NYI (2002–03) & COL (13–14) are the other two.
It took tons of work to get to where this team got, and they put that work in every single day to get better. Blown leads were the all-too-common theme of the first half of the Leafs’ season, as a regular season total of 15 losses beyond regulation would indicate. Early-season defeats at the hands of Chicago, Winnipeg, and New Jersey come to mind as glaring examples. By December, it was becoming commonplace for the Leafs to gain a 3rd period lead only to relinquish it and eventually lose. And although they by no means were perfect when it came to holding late-game leads after the ring-in of the new calendar year, they certainly improved. The Leafs were one of the top five teams in the East after January 1, which propelled the Buds into a playoff position (their first in an 82-game year since 2003–04) and a matchup with the Capitals in the first round.
Coming in as the heavy, heavy underdogs, many hockey fans and experts predicted the Leafs would get raked out of the rink and swept in four games. But then they dropped the puck for game one, and about halfway through the first period, that notion was put to rest.
The Leafs scored the first two goals of Game 1 before their achilles heal, blown leads, reared its ugly head and they lost the game 3–2 on a Justin Williams OT-winner. They got on the board first again in game two, and won a double-OT thriller off a goal by Kasperi Kapanen (his second of the contest) set up beautifully from behind the goal line.
The series then shifted back to Toronto for Game 3, where the Leafs came out flat. They fell behind 2–0 early in the first and 3–1 early in period number two before rallying to win another OT game (the third straight to begin the series) on a tip-in on the power play off a Nazem Kadri shot from the half-wall, and the Buds had what was, at best, an unlikely, and more realistically, an impossible, 2–1 series lead. Unfortunately, though, for the Leafs, Game 4 started eerily similar to Game 3, the Capitals up 2–0 before five minutes had been played. In fact, by the time the 1st period was over, it was 4–1 Washington. The Leafs cut the lead to 4–3 late in the 3rd, but a costly blueline turnover potted by T.J. Oshie was the dagger. Although the Leafs scored with 26.4 seconds left to make it 5–4, there would be no rally this time, and the series was once again all square, this time at two games apiece, heading back to the U.S. Capital.
This game was a far cry from the high-scoring, wide open affairs of the first four games, but still equally as entertaining. It was Washington this time opening the scoring late in the 1st before Matthews scored in a third consecutive game early in the 2nd to even the score. After going scoreless for the next 35:04, it was Williams once again showing off his flare for the dramatic as he snapped a centering feed home past Andersen to give Washington back the series lead at 3 games to 2.
Then, it was back to TO for Game 6––the Leafs on the brink of elimination, the Caps on the verge of advancing to round two. And this game, too, did not disappoint. It was scoreless through forty, although chances were aplenty for both teams, with the Leafs having the edge for much of the game. Eight minutes into the third, the Leafs rookie sensation and the certain-Calder Trophy winner got a fortuitous bounce off a shoot-in from Morgan Reilly that hit a stanchion and bounced right onto the stick of #34, who roofed one over netminder Braden Holtby to give the Leafs the lead. They were unable to build off the lucky break, though, as, five minutes later, the Caps tied it off a scramble in front of Andersen, where Marcus Johansson was standing to score his second of the playoffs. And, yet again, the Leafs and Caps were heading to an extra frame for the fifth time in six games. That extra period was thoroughly dominated by the Washingtons, who hemmed the Leafs in for the majority of the period, and, at 6:31 of overtime, Johansson scored the winner on a rebound off a shot from Carlson, and, just like that, the Leafs’ Cinderella season was over.
Players and coaches postgame were obviously unhappy about being unable to force the series to a winner-takes-all Game 7, but the reality is, this team had a hell of a series and a hell of a season. This was something no one expected. Even though Mike Babcock said in the preseason there was a good chance they’d make the playoffs, I don’t know if he really believed it. Or if he did, he certainly didn’t believe they’d make it and play as well as they did. He admitted to that much last week. The statement is not that the Leafs made the postseason (although that would have been quite the story in itself, even had they been swept); the statement is they made the postseason, pushed the best team in all of hockey to six games, and had a legitimate chance to win every single one.
That bodes incredibly well for the future.
The Leafs are in need of a top-four right-handed-shooting defenceman, and should they get that this summer, are in the conversation to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. That is how good this team is as it stands, and with the likes of Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo and Kapanen all expected to step into the lineup full time next season up front, it becomes that much better. Especially when you consider the heightened growth of Matthews, Marner and Nylander from this playoff series all carrying forward to next season, those three are all the more prepared for the rigours of a long season, and the expectations of playoff success.
A winning culture has been restored in Toronto sports, and the hunger for winning is no more apparent than with the Leafs. Well, fans can finally sit down to dinner, and do so for the next 15 years. The Leafs are no longer the laughing stock of the NHL, and Leafs Nation can finally be proud to don the Blue and White. It’s been a long time coming, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are back on the hockey landscape.
Ben Browne also writes for Canada Football Chat. Find him on Twitter here.