If the Maple Leafs had stayed in the Atlantic Division bracket they could have made a run. Instead, they’re now in the ‘just happy to be there’ camp.
The highest goal-scoring rookie in the NHL since Alex Ovechkin and your winner of the 2017 Calder Trophy has said all the right things this season. And that was no exception when Auston Matthews was asked about the prospect of facing the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
“They’re a good team, but they’re not unbeatable,” Matthews said of the Capitals. That’s the kind of things players say when they’re facing an opponent that is pretty much unbeatable. Matthews and his teammates were saying all the right things about their first-round foe, but the fact of the matter is they blew it.
In coughing up a two-goal lead, the tying goal coming when Jake Gardiner blew a tire and the backbreaker shorthanded, the Maple Leafs missed an opportunity to go from just-happy-to-be-here status to a serious playoff contender.
Had the Leafs even picked up a point on Sunday, they would have finished third in the Atlantic Division and drawn the Ottawa Senators as their first-round opponent. Now you could make the argument that the Senators are the worst of the 16 teams in the playoffs. That’s not to say the Maple Leafs would have defeated the Senators, but it would not have surprised anyone if they did. And then there’s that whole playoff history thing between these two teams that the Ottawa organization has yet to live down. Had they managed to get past Ottawa, they would have stayed in the Atlantic Division and played the winner of the series between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, another series in which they could have seriously competed and perhaps even stolen away.
But now they face a path through the Metropolitan Division and play the Capitals in the first round in a series that they have almost no chance of winning. So, you can look at this one of two ways. The first would be the glass-half-empty attitude that in a league that is so tight and winning is so difficult, the Leafs blew a golden opportunity to accelerate their building process by perhaps winning a couple of series and going deep into the playoffs. The kids are just getting going and we all assume they’re going to be back, but you never, ever know about these things. Ovechkin still hasn’t been out of the second round of the playoffs. Who would have predicted that 11 years ago when he scored 52 goals as a rookie and finished sixth in voting for the Hart Trophy? Steve Yzerman played 14 seasons in the NHL, many of them surrounded by Hall of Famers, before he lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time. The fifth- and seventh-highest scorers of all-time, Marcel Dionne and Mike Gartner, never won a Stanley Cup.
The possibility of getting beyond the first round would have given these Leafs an opportunity to experience some playoff success and provide them with the knowledge that they prevailed at the NHL’s most crucial time. Now they’re going to play the Capitals and they’ll just be happy to be there. As is always the case in Toronto, losing, even getting crushed, will be accepted with lots of applause, backslaps and unconditional praise. Fans and others will rationalize that nobody expected them to be there anyway, so even the fact they made the playoffs should be considered a huge success. Some habits die hard, and the refusal to hold the players and this organization accountable for its shortcomings is one that will take a while to dissipate.
Or you could look at it another way. Even if the Leafs had managed to take advantage of the worst division in hockey, there’s a very good chance they would have faced one of the Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference final. Perhaps it’s better for the organization to be stopped in its tracks early in the playoffs so these young players don’t get a sense that they’re better than they actually are. Losing handily in the first round would give these players the playoff exposure they need to develop and still provide them with the dose of cold water they might require not to get too big for their britches. It certainly didn’t hurt the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins, who were schooled in the first round of the playoffs by the Senators in 2007, found themselves in the Stanley Cup final the next spring before winning it all in 2009.
But it’s difficult to not wonder what might have been. And when the Leafs look back at what will probably be an early playoff exit in 2017, they’ll probably harken back to Sunday night and realize what an opportunity they let go by the wayside.