As we hit the one-third mark of this National Hockey League season, there is a lot of crowing here in Toronto about the Leafs' record, their play this week against the Senators notwithstanding. No doubt, the Ottawa 6-5 overtime win on Monday night was thrilling for fans in the Nation’s Capital. But, the expectation from fans and many in the media here in Leaf-land is that the Leafs will be the team that makes it out of the Canadian Division and into the final four. And that may very well occur. As of this writing, the Leafs have the best record among the teams in the Canadian Division. They have the most wins, the most points and the best points-percentage as well. In terms of goals for and total plus-minus, they are at the top of the table. They have tremendous offensive capability led by the goal-scoring machine that is Auston Matthews and his trusty sidekick Mitch Marner.
But, they have shown a propensity for losing their focus at times - they have lost to the Senators twice, once in regulation and once in overtime - but for the most part, they have been the best team in the division. The question is ‘How would the Leafs do if they were playing in the Atlantic Division as the league was configured before this unique season?’ Let’s take a look at how that Atlantic Division looked at the end of last year. The Bruins and the Lightning were one and two respectively and, by far, the best teams in the group. The Leafs finished third followed closely by the Florida Panthers. The Canadiens finished fifth but, I believe that we can all agree that this year’s Habs are better than last year’s team. The Sabres, Senators and Red Wings rounded out the list. Looking at the five teams at the top of the Atlantic, are the Leafs better than the Bruins? Are they better than the Lightning? Or the Panthers? How would they stack up against Montreal in a best of seven series? There are people who think that if the Leafs win one series in the playoffs, then it would be a successful year. There are many more in Toronto who will only be satisfied if the Leafs can contend for a Cup. The Leafs and Habs have played three times in this 2021 season. Each team has won a game in regulation and the Leafs won their first meeting in January in overtime. They play again this weekend. Any best of seven series between these two teams would be intense and would be must-see-TV. As for the others, the Bruins lead the East Division, but it’s tight. The Flyers, Caps and Islanders are grouped together behind Boston with the Penguins nipping at that peloton’s heels. In the Central, The Panthers and the surprising Blackhawks are tied at the top of that group. The Lightning and Hurricanes are behind them by a point (and would be second in the division if it were decided by points-percentage behind Florida). The Bruins are excellent on defense, goaltending and special teams but have had their issues playing 5-on-5. The Lightning look stacked in every position but there are those who suggest that their lack of depth on the right side of their blue line may be one of their only weaknesses. The Panthers have added some key players in Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe and their goaltending tandem of Bobrovsky and Driedger have been solid. Also, even in a 56-game schedule, there will be ebbs and flows. The Leafs have a very good team. They may be able to finish at the top of their division at the end of regular season play. How they do after that will depend on their defense and their goaltending, as it always does when the games become more meaningful and more intense. And we know how the Leafs’ back end has performed when faced with adversity in the playoffs in the past.
Until we actually see them do it in the clutch, the majority of fans will remain skeptical. Just saying.
Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey