With the Toronto Maple Leafs in the midst of an intense Eastern Conference playoff race, their plethora of overtime losses — and blown leads — are beginning to add up.
On the surface, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ California road trip was disastrous. The team went 0-2-1, was outscored by an 11-5 margin and blew another third period lead against the Kings. To make matters worse, teams in the Atlantic Division are either starting to separate themselves from the Leafs, like the Canadiens, Senators and Bruins are slowly doing, or are quickly catching up, like the Panthers and resurgent Lightning are doing.
Of course, the losing has been a major problem for the Leafs. The team has now lost five straight, are 3-5-4 in their last 12 games and currently trail the New York Islanders by one point for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The gut-wrenching part about these losses, though, is how the Leafs are losing. More specifically, their inability to win close games. Consider this: the Leafs are 10-7-14 in one-goal games, have 10 losses when leading after two periods, are 5-6 in three-on-three and unbelievably 1-8 in shootouts.
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In the big picture, 14 overtime/shootout losses equates to a lot of missed opportunities when you’re in the midst of an intense playoff race where six teams are within three points of each other. But in the “bigger picture,” the Leafs find themselves in a similar spot to where the early Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks were.
The 2005-06 Penguins, which was Sidney Crosby‘s rookie season, had 14 overtime losses. The team took a massive step forward the following season and not only saw their overtime losses decrease from 14 to 11, they also raised their point total from 58 to 105.
The 2007-08 Blackhawks, which was Jonathan Toews‘ and Patrick Kane‘s rookie season, were a more complete team than the Penguins and only had eight overtime losses. However, they were 9-8 in overtime and shootout situations, and were 9-9 in games decided by one goal or less (regulation only), which equates to an 18-9-8 record in “close games.” Chicago finished the 07-08 season with 88 points, but finished the following season with 104 points.
So what does this all mean with the Leafs? Two things:
1) Unless this team is snake-bitten by the hockey Gods, or cursed, as some would prefer to say, I highly doubt their mediocre record in high-pressure situations continues next season. Much like we saw with the Penguins and Hawks, there’s bound to be some progression.
2) It’s clear that — much like the Penguins and Hawks were doing in the early stages of their development — the Leafs are still learning how to win and close out games.
These growing pains are excruciatingly painful to watch at times, but these close losses are an invaluable learning experience for the young Leafs. Also, this stretch run is a nice evaluation tool for management.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs’ veterans have struggled recently, and the kids are, well, kids who are learning all of this. The problem with the veterans is that they have barely been in this situation themselves. The only players with experience in this kind of playoff race are Brian Boyle, who’s done it all, James van Riemsdyk, who did it with the Leafs and Flyers, Matt Hunwick, who played 20 playoff games between the Bruins and Rangers, and Roman Polak, who did it with the Blues and, although it was a short tenure, the Sharks last season.
Aside from those four players, the playoffs are, for the most part, a foreign concept to this roster. Yes, there are a handful of players who also have playoff experience, but it’s not much.
Does that mean management will make an effort to add veterans in the offseason? Or do they ride this core out, add a few pieces and hope that they grow together and learn how to win? I do think this team will benefit from a veteran player like Boyle, but I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about this process in the long-term. I think it’s more of a trial-and-error process where specific players will fit what the Leafs are trying to do and others won’t.
Back to this year, though. Imagine if the Leafs won four of their 14 overtime/shootout losses? Those four points would have the Leafs tied with the Bruins for third in the Atlantic Division and a share of the final Wild Card spot. Even two less overtime losses would make a tremendous difference.
Bottom line, the Leafs have been close, but not close enough on far too many occasions this season, and all those missed points will likely come back to haunt them down the stretch, but the silver lining in this playoff chase is the invaluable learning experience you hope both the players and management will use for future seasons.