Leafs are more poised for playoff hockey than many think

Published April 16, 2022 at 5:52 PM
BY RYAN SMITHERAM
The last five playoff disappointments have led to the Leafs constantly being called "too soft" and told that they need to get "tougher" or more "physical" with their stars disappearing all too often when the going gets tough. For those playoff rounds, and the seasons leading into them, the Leafs were considered a "run and gun" team that wanted to get into track meets with the opposition and just try to outscore them off the rush. To an extent that is true, but they have also been goalied in back-to-back years and their special teams all but disappeared during the playoffs too.

This season though, Keefe challenged the Leafs from the start of camp to be more physical and Dubas has brought in players like Lyubushkin and Giordano to help them in that aspect. Last week, Keefe noted to the media that he challenged his players to be more physical the last 20 games of the season to prepare for the playoffs. Essentially Keefe wanted his team to become comfortable with tight checking, physical games and find ways to score in them. Something the Leafs have succeeded in so far. Believe it or not, the Leafs have turned from a «run and gun» team when Keefe first took over to a team that prefers to wear their opposition down with a relentless forecheck and a dynamic cycle game that gets the opponent chasing the puck around and tiring themselves out in their zone.

To debunk the myth that the Leafs are a rush team, they rank 21st in the league in rush shots per 60 minutes averaging 15.8 rush shots per 60. Only the Rangers and back-to-back Cup winning Lightning rank lower for playoff teams. This could bode well for the Leafs going into the playoffs and given that they have succeeded at finding ways to score and prevent being scored on in tight, physical games, it is safe to say that this new style of play will continue to work for them.

Make no mistake about it, the Leafs can still score off the rush and at will when needed, but the fact that they have become a heavier and stronger team in board battles throughout the season will only help them get over the first round hump.


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