So, what went wrong this time?
The prevailing theory about the Maple Leafs — one and done in the post-season for the fourth straight time — is that for all their offensive power, speed and talent they still can’t handle the hard checking and neutral/defensive-zone clogging that most other teams unleash in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The core group has been together for all four early exits, unable to adapt its league-leading possession game for playoff success. It’s not exactly what former Leafs coach Mike Babcock called “will over skill.” It’s more about finding the right balance between the two.
Here’s a closer look at what went wrong for a Leafs team that played well at times in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but not well enough:
The Leafs scored just three goals at even strength. That’s from a team that led the NHL in offensive-zone possession in the regular season (just under seven minutes a game) and dominated in that area in the series (41:47 to 32:33 for Columbus). After allowing the most goals in the league off the cycle in the regular season, the Leafs actually out-chanced Columbus in that department (51-39) — and the Jackets’ cycle game is one of the best. Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe emphasized five-on-five play in summer camp and praised the results at the time, but cautioned correctly that “if we don’t score, we’ll be in trouble.”
Hands down, Joonas Korpisalo. The Columbus goalie, who shared duties with Elvis Merzlikins, stole Game 5 and became just the eighth NHLer ever to record two shutouts in a best-of-five series. He’s also one of just 13 netminders to pitch a shutout in his playoff debut, in Game 1. Korpisalo’s goals saved above average topped out at seven — best in the playoffs. By comparison, Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen finished at 0.47 in that stat, after a 6.04 mark in the regular season. Korpisalo has two years left on his contract at $2.8 million (U.S.) per season. He could be popular in off-season trade talk.
In the other net
Andersen played well enough overall for the Leafs to win, but his numbers in deciding games — 0-8 in his career — are not flattering. His save percentage against the Blue Jackets was a solid .937, but his mark on high-danger chances (.818) was a negative. He was roughly in line with his regular-season numbers: .909 and .781. There were some goals he should have stopped, but he was also a big reason why the Leafs killed off all of the Blue Jackets’ 14 power-play chances over five games. Also, the Leafs managed to score the first goal only once: in Game 2, when they forced the Jackets into a wide-open game that’s more Toronto’s style.
The Muzzin effect
How much did the series-ending injury to bedrock defenceman Jake Muzzin late in Game 2 affect the Leafs’ chances? Toronto led 211-162 in zone entries, an area they had targeted for improvement — retrieving the puck in their own zone and moving it out quickly. Columbus led 20-11 in forecheck chances, but the Leafs were still better than expected at fending off the Jackets’ vaunted forecheck. Muzzin’s defence partner Justin Holl, however, was less effective across the board in the final three games.
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Toronto got 10 goals from seven players, but none from the third or fourth lines, forcing coach Sheldon Keefe to work Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander even harder, especially in Games 4 and 5. Nylander made two key mistakes in the deciding game, when the winger played out of position at centre … Matthews, Marner and Tavares played just over 30 minutes together in the entire regular season. In Games 4 and 5: just under 25 minutes … It’s been almost 6,000 days since the Leafs’ last playoff series win, against the Ottawa Senators in 2004.
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