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The Leafs Probably Won't Win....But Can They?

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So you're saying there's a chance?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs are in the postseason! For that we should be grateful. The bad news, however, is that they're going to get a trial by fire in the form of an extremely good Washington Capitals team.

So far, the outlook for the Leafs is not so good. In a sport where parity prevents consensus in prediction, there is an overwhelming consensus that the Capitals will absolutely steamroll the Leafs. The safe bet seems to be Capitals in 3. That's not a typo; most people expect the Capitals to win three games so brutally, they'll invoke a mercy rule in advance of Game 4. It's great that the Leafs got this far, but the extremely likely outcome is them not making it much further.

But....can they? If they can, how will they do it? To me, there is only one way in which the Leafs could manage an upset, and it would have to be a carbon copy of the last memorable upset of the Washington Capitals. The question is whether the Leafs have been given a similar situation rife with the opportunity to win.

The 2010 Canadiens Method

The major precedent we have to work with comes from our hated rivals seven years ago. In 2010, the Capitals were a 121-point juggernaut with a smash mouth offense that appeared destined to steamroll the Eastern Conference and compete for a Stanley Cup. The Caps opened the postseason against a quite underwhelming 8th seed in the Montreal Canadiens, who had amassed 33 fewer points in the regular season. Despite an OT loss in Game 1, the Caps jumped out to a 3-1 lead and everyone assumed it would be business as usual.

Except it wasn't. The Habs roared back with three straight wins to knock out the Caps in what remains the biggest upset in recent history, even in an Eastern Conference bracket that in 2010, was full of upsets.

The Habs were credited with two things in that series: (1) otherworldly goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 131 of the 134 shots he faced in the final three games; and, (2) a heroic offensive performance from Michael Cammalleri, who scored 5 of the Habs' 20 goals in the series.

Seven years later, the Leafs are staring down the barrel of a dangerous Capitals offense. This is a different Washington team, and it's hard to find any precedent at all for this Leafs team. Nonetheless, conventional logic dictates that the Leafs' only road to victory, similar to that Montreal team, would have to be through an MVP-calibre performance from Frederik Andersen, coupled with timely scoring.

The question is: can that happen? The answer is "probably not," but that's no fun. Let's really look at if the Leafs have the makings of a potential upset. The best way to do is compare their team to the last team to pull off a major upset of a heavily-favoured Capitals team, as well as the Capitals themselves.

Why They Could

I'm going to start with a controversial, but true, statement: the 2009-10 Habs weren't good.

No, this isn't my bias talking, at least not entirely. They just weren't a good team. They were okay, average, mediocre, or any of those adjectives; but good? Hardly. They were the 8th seed for a reason.

Looking at even the simplest of numbers- the standings- the current-day Leafs are a somewhat better team than those Habs. The Leafs finished with more points (95 to 88), overall wins (40 to 39), and ROW (39 to 32). Put it this way: the 2010 Habs would've been good enough to tie this year's Philadelphia Flyers, which is....not great.

The underlying numbers are not much more favourable, either. The 2010 Habs had a goal differential of -6, one of only two playoff teams in the red (Ottawa was the other, at -14). They scored 217 goals, which was 5th fewest in the NHL. Their 5v5 CF% was an abysmal 47.2%, good for fourth last in the league. They played a Caps team that had a +85 goal differential, 318 goals, and had a 52.9% CF (1st, 1st, and 3rd in the NHL, respectively). This was a complete mismatch.

The 2017 Leafs, on the other hand, are not as mismatched as some may think, at least by the numbers. They had a +9 goal differential, which increases to +16 if you remove their shootout record. They boast one of the most potent offenses in the league, scoring just 11 fewer goals than the Capitals this season. Possession-wise, they are not as mismatched: Toronto has a 50.4% CF to Washington's 51.8%, and that gap isn't much bigger when you score adjust (51.0% for Toronto; 53.2% for Washington).

The Leafs boast a lot of strengths that those Habs did not: to wit, a potent offense and better puck possession. The 2010 Habs were simply dominated on the shot clock in Games 5-7 and needed surreal goaltending to push them over the hump. The Leafs' numbers suggest they may not need transcendental goaltending to pull off an upset; great goaltending may be enough. Getting a timely goal or two from Auston Matthews may seem more probable than from 2010 Cammalleri, he of 26 goals and 50 points that season.

Why They Probably Won't

You'll notice the preceding paragraphs compared the Leafs to the last team to pull off a major upset, while not saying much about the opponent. That's not a coincidence; the biggest obstacle to a similar upset by the Leafs is simple: the Washington Capitals are a much better team.

The hallmark of the 2010 Washington Capitals was firewagon hockey at its finest. The Capitals scored a ton of goals, but their goaltending hid a lot of blemishes. While they were one of the better teams in goals against, they were fairly middle of the pack in SA60 (17th) and CA60 (18th). They pounded you into the ground with offense, but they let you get a lot of chances, too.

Suffice to say, those Capitals are not the Capitals of today. The 2010 upset forced the Caps to sacrifice some of their freewheeling offense at the altar of playing a more complete game. While it took three coaches and several years, they've all but perfected this system under Barry Trotz. You may recall Trotz' long tenure in Nashville with a suffocating defense to the point where he made the likes of Dan Ellis and Anders Lindback look like competent goaltenders. He's doing that now in Washington, except he has the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to put pucks in the net. The numbers speak for themselves; the Caps are 5th in SA60 and 4th in CA60.

Look back at last week's game against the Capitals; but for a small window early in the second period, you notice the Leafs just can't sustain pressure. Why? Because the Capitals are clogging the shooting lanes and gumming up the works, making it effectively possible to get crisp puck movement. The 2010 Capitals didn't have that ability, but the 2017 Capitals are very good at it.

In 2010, the Caps relied on a blueline consisting of Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Joe Corvo, Shaone Morrison, and a rookie John Carlson. For all their strengths, that isn't exactly an intimidating group of names. The Leafs, on the other hand, will face a blueline consisting of Carlson, Dmitri Orlov, Matt Niskanen, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt. That......well, that seems like quite an improvement. Their biggest upgrade, however, is in net: in 2010, they were relying mostly on Semyon Varlamov, who put up a fairly pedestrian .909. Braden Holtby, on the other hand, put up a .925 this season and is easily a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy. That should terrify you.

Further, while the 2010 and 2017 Capitals were similar in points (121 in 2010, 118 in 2017), wins (54, 55) and ROW (49, 53), it is worth noting that this year's edition had a much more difficult schedule. The 2010 team played in the perpetually weak Southeast Division, guaranteeing over 25% of their games that year were against four teams that did not qualify for the postseason (and against whom the Capitals went 19-2-3). This year's Capitals played a much more division-heavy schedule (30 of 82 games) within a Metropolitan Division that produced three other 100+ point teams. That the 2017 Capitals were even close to the 2010 team in points in a far stronger division is a testament how good they are.

Conclusion

The Leafs can't win. Can they?

Well, probably not. On one hand, the Capitals have been upset before by a much weaker team than these Leafs; on the other, the Capitals team that was upset was neither as complete nor as well-rounded as the one that the Leafs will face.

What does this all mean? Overall, it means the Leafs essentially need their best players to be their best players, all while getting heroic goaltending to even have a hope of stealing this series. It means that the chance of that happening, or of the Leafs winning even if that happened, is not great. While you can expect a valiant effort from the Leafs, it seems improbable their postseason will extend longer than five or six games.

Then again, that's why they play the games.