Shit’s looking a little rough in Leafland right now. After blowing a winnable game against Columbus, the Leafs find themselves staring down at the juggernaut Washington Capitals. Predictably, this has led to the normal platitudes about how this year’s playoff run will be a quick 4-0 and a handshake, with the Leafs learning a lot about Playoff Hockey (TM).
Well I say, fuck that. The Leafs didn’t come to the playoffs to take part, they came to take over. The Capitals ARE a great team, and yes, they are better than the Leafs. But no team in the NHL is invincible, especially not in a short series and all the randomness it provides. In his optimist/pessimist preview, Fulemin basically settled on the series being somewhere between a Capitals sweep and a close but decisive Capitals win. While that certainly represents the likelier outcomes, the Leafs are good enough to play with, and beat the Capitals. Here’s why:
The Leafs Are Actually Good
Toronto’s mediocre record obscures that they’re a legitmately above-average team. Toronto won 55% of their games ending in regulation this year - that ranks 13th in the league - notably above average, and much of that coming with a worse team than what they’re playing with now (upgrading Smith to Boyle, and Soshnikov to Kapanen). If we look at metrics that are more predictive of playoff success, it looks better.
At even strength, they rank 9th at score and venue-adjusted Corsi For % (via Corsica). This comes in a high-event, high octane package which makes the Leafs seem more frail than they are. The fact is, they’re a solid even-strength team. Not as good as Washington, but good enough to compete, and not get blown out.
This of course, ignores shooting/goaltending talent, and special teams. In all of those areas, the Leafs shine. While many think of shooting talent as solely luck driven, that is not entirely the case. Looks at where the Leafs take their shots from:
The Leafs shoot from dangerous areas - they’re a legitimate offensive juggernaut, one that is capable of going toe-to-toe with Washington’s fearsome offense. And of course, we all know about how good the Leafs power play has been this season.
This isn’t to say that the Leafs are better than Washington. They’re not. But they’re closer than people think, and in a playoff series, they won’t be overmatched the way many people feel they will.
Washington is Vulnerable
This is actually less that Washington is vulnerable, and more than every team is vulnerable. It’s lazy to say that every team has a shot once they get into the post-season, and it’s largely untrue, because an underdog will have to defy the odds multiple times to actually get to the Cup, which is inherently unlikely.
But it’s very true to say that an above average team has a reasonable chance of beating a great team in a single series. This isn’t basketball, where the best teams dominate and upsets are rare. The Capitals have been victims of being the superior team and losing before. You don’t need to remind them of the fragility of favourites in hockey.
I don’t buy into the idea that the Capitals are cursed, or lack some ‘winner juice’ that will carry them over the hump. They’re a great team that has been on the wrong side of some close series’ and hot goalies. But they’re just that - a great team. They’re not superhuman, and at the end of the day, they lost 19 times this year in regulation. They’re not unbeatable.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the Leafs are underdogs, but they shouldn’t be overmatched. These aren’t the 2013 Leafs, a poor team masked by variance, goaltending, and Phil Kessel. These aren’t the 2014 Avalanche, who rode a PDO streak into a 7 game loss to Minnesota, and years in the dark afterwards. Toronto is legitimately a good team. Washington is legitimately better. But let’s not pretend like the worse team never wins a series.
We’re not dead yet.