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Miscellaneous Leaf Thoughts: We’re Still Alive Edition

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Random Leaf thoughts after a bonkers Game 5.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s another edition of random Leaf thoughts.

  1. The refereeing has been dogshit this series. I’m going to plant my homer flag on this one and say the Leafs have gotten a brutal whistle. It was never more evident than in Game 5, when the power play opportunities ran 6-1 against the Leafs, including an extended 5-on-3. At time of writing, the Leafs have the fewest power play opportunities of any of the sixteen playoff teams (10) up against 17 gifted to the Bruins.

Some of those were real penalties. And for what it’s worth, the most devastating blow the Leafs suffered, the Nazem Kadri decision, was justified in isolation. The problem is Boston is getting away with murder. Zdeno Chara continues to be the captain of uncalled interference, while Brad Marchand has the usual litany of cheap shit that flies under the radar because the refs seem unwilling to give him the four penalties a game he’d deserve if he were held to a normal standard.

Why is this? Because when the game is in Boston the refs apparently give into the Massachusetts crowd. The Leafs are +1 in power play opportunities in the games in Toronto; they’re -8 in Boston.

There’s not much the Leafs can do other than fight through it, make a couple of references to the media, and tell every braindead Boston fan whining about the refs to eat shit.

2. Don’t turtle. In the event the Leafs are fortunate enough to get a lead next game, they can’t get outshot all to hell for the entire third period again. This was skewed greatly by a) a bunch of penalties and b) score effects against an elite Corsi team, but still, you can’t just batten down the hatches and pray to God and Freddie Andersen. The Leafs have the capacity to play against this team and run out scoring in waves. It doesn’t mean they’ll win, but they can.

Hell, the Leafs have been better 5v5 than might be obvious. As per Natural Stat Trick, when score and venue adjusted, the Leafs have narrowly had the better of the shot attempts and the scoring chances (!), and this is against an excellent team. Their penalty kill, and having to over-employ it, have hurt them bad, and they were unquestionably pretty awful in the first game and a half or so. But the last three I think you can argue the Leafs have been the better team. Not within a thousand miles of flawless, but this looks a lot more like the close series we expected going in, and not the grotesque blowouts it started with. So go out and play and win Game 6, and who knows.

3. Andreas Johnsson. It’s hard to believe this guy was ever out of the lineup. In our Top 25 last year I said he was NHL-ready at time of writing, but even then, he’s been a revelation. So. Much. Speed.

This’ll be forgotten if we bow out on Monday, so let’s hope we don’t: this is as deep a Leaf forward lineup as has existed. Some people were understandably not psyched about bumping Nylander down a few lines, but the Leafs can mix and match an overwhelming number of scoring threats. They need to cover for the ramshackle defence, but hot damn, that’s something.

4. Forward defence as much as defence defence. Ron Hainsey has been ground down playing 300 penalty kill minutes per night, Nikita Zaitsev has been [several paragraphs redacted] and Roman Polak is Roman Polak. At the same time, team defence is a collective commitment, and aside from Bozak and JVR, I think Leaf fans don’t always address how much the leading lights of the forward core need to work at the defensive side of their games. It’s a team thing. I am on side with Mike Babcock here. Help me.

5. I think James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Leo Komarov are gone. I figured the Leafs weren’t going to re-sign JVR regardless, but Bozak’s usage has evaporated, and Leo Komarov is by his own account being healthy-scratched. Babcock’s playoff usage tends to indicate something about his real opinion of a guy (remember Connor Carrick’s disappearance last year?) and I’m drawing some inferences here.

Note, though: I wouldn’t be totally surprised if, counter to expectations, the Leafs tried to bring back Tomas Plekanec. The word has been he’d probably head back to Montreal, but I would be entirely happy to have Plekanec as the play-up 4C if the price is right. Just get Lou to give him a goatee exemption.

6. Zach Hyman & Mitch Marner.

Zach Hyman has been awesome this series. I will accept no contradiction on this point. Even when the Leafs have looked beat, Zach has brought 110%, he’s put up points, he’s killed penalties—well, okay, so that last one hasn’t been so hot. But I’m glad to have him.

Mitchy has been the Leafs’ best offensive player, to the point where people have said silly and outlandish things about his forthcoming contract being as big as Matthews’ or something. That isn’t reality. But he’s a bona fide superstar winger in the making. This is good.

7. Leadership and nonsense. Okay, let’s get into this.

Auston Matthews didn’t come out to talk to the media after the Leafs’ loss on Thursday. In so doing, he denied the Leafs media the opportunity to hear banal quotes about giving 110% or “shit happens” or whatever else. This is meaningless.

One of our site regulars, Chi-Town Leafs, had a comment the other day that leadership is meaningful, but it’s very difficult to discern from the outside. I agree. I do think it’s worth something, and there is something to the ability to help the team stick to the game plan when the instinct is to get frustrated and cheat for goals. What Matthews is like in the dressing room, I have no idea, although if you want to do some post hoc ergo propter hoc silliness you could note he and his team came out hot next game. But I am convinced that Matthews’ willingness to face the media, or not, has nothing to do with it.

Seriously. I don’t care in the slightest if Matthews never gives a post-game quote again. Dion Phaneuf showed up after games, and credit to him for that; I think he’s a good dude, but that didn’t do jack shit in terms of getting the team to win. I think most fans feel this way, to be honest.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think he should necessarily be the captain.

Matthews is a fantastic player who, by all accounts, has competitive fire and work ethic. He is a leader in many ways, I believe, and I think he’s going to be everything we need. Being captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, though, is half a PR position, and if Matthews doesn’t like doing that, I have no desire to make him do it. Morgan Rielly is a core piece, is a little older, and has the temperament to answer dumb questions with a smile. Why weigh Matthews down with an obligation to tell the feverish Toronto MSM the right eight-word cliche? Let Matthews be great, and let Rielly be captain.

8. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die. It seems odd that whether the winningest season in franchise history counted as successful hinges on a few games in April. But that’s the business, and six games where we at least put up a fight is better than getting pasted in five. We’re still playing, we’re playing intermittently well, and we’re in with a chance. Go Leafs Go.