If I had a vote, which I don't and would never want, he'd be my choice for Norris winner. I don't know what is wrong with him physically – cracked ribs, a torn abdominal – but he was a moose out there for the Lightning, and the difference in that team with and without him was stark.
He had his best playoffs ever, and yet... Okay, this is how it looked to me: he can't play his game in the playoffs. He gets manned off of the puck too much and he can't steal the puck back in the neutral zone – a key method the Leafs use to turn the tide. He had a lot of trouble getting passes through, and it's really a testimony to how good he is, how much he works that he got all the points he got and his quality of play outshone a mediocre shotshare with him on the ice. I think there's an opportunity there to put someone on his opposite wing who can be Zach Hyman, and maybe for real, that man can be...
I mean, what's to say here. On April 9, or three whole weeks ago, when he'd lost the Frozen Four final and people were carping about his compete (LOL) and complaining that he's just Jimmy Vesey all over again (bigger LOL), even his biggest fan (that's me) wouldn't have expected him to be bunting the puck to John Tavares in OT in game six to win the round. At some point it will stop being amazing when he scampers to the boards to dig into the game with all the gonzo enthusiasm of a kid who has never been told to slow down. That point is not now.
I've been a harsh critic of his, but keeping him out of Game 5 was dumb (I do think it was to avoid demoting Alex Kerfoot), and no one has a case for not playing him in the lineup after a mature and effective Game 6. He should remain a regular roster player.
I didn't care about the Leafs when he was there the first time. They were terrible, and I didn't have the patience. But I like him. I like his commitment to his bit – which is to walk the miscreants away from the crease like he's the bouncer in a club in the wrong part of town. I like his point shots, and also that he knows he's on the Leafs now, and he should use them sparingly. I like his defensive awareness too. Yes, he's slow, but I can name you a lot of names of other players you think are good who are not going to outskate a zippy little winger on a breakaway. If you want to hate him, keep looking for mistakes, he'll provide for you.
He really worked this series, and his numbers are terrible. His lines' inability to win their matchup was not an iron-clad proof of concept of him as the third-line centre. The power play was good with him on it, but not at the expense of wasting William Nylander's time. Sometimes, you just are the guy that gets snowed under by a really good team, and indeed, O'Reilly's major opponents was the top line with an overwhelming exposure to Hedman and his D partner. He ate it so other lines could prosper. But there's a danger in bending that far down under the onslaught.
I hesitate to even say this part because if I say the Lightning were less then perfect then that just gives fuel to the burning desire to decide the Leafs are actually bad. But I think the Lightning had some problems. Nikita Kucherov was not a force. Neither was Brayden Point, and that predates the smash into the boards, which I am betting cracked his ribs or did something to a shoulder or core muscle.
Other players filled the void. Darren Raddysh was unexpectedly good thrust into an NHL role he'd never really had before. Anthony Cirelli was the second-best forward after Steven Stamkos, and Micheal Eyssimont is easily 10 times the player of Tanner Jeannot.
Corey Perry didn't have it once they stopped the "stirring up trouble" bullshit. I'm not entirely sure why they did stop, to be honest. Took too many solo trips to the box? Patrick Maroon played too much, and while Brandon Hagel got a lot of credit in some quarters because he played a lot – too high in the lineup (like Calle Järncrok and Alex Kerfoot did) – he was actually lowkey bad in a lot of ways.
For all the sturm und drang over the shotshare and the Expected Goals percentage, a careful read of the Tampa results show that those sparkly numbers were driven by the grinders of a certain age who have no meaningful offensive ability. Actually that's a fun exercise, let's see both teams mixed together by on-ice five-on-five Expected Goals %:
|Erik Gustafsson (D)||TOR||1||6.03||0||44.44|
Do you want the best overall number, or do you want to be the team with the guys who can score at the top of this list?
Now if you'll excuse me, I really need to get to work on that thing to make sortable tables.