A historic season

April 23, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Jasen Obermeyer

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2017-18 season may go down as one of their finest, most interesting in franchise history.

Starting off this season, Leafs Nation felt a sense of excitement and doubt. After finally clinching a playoff spot last year in a full season since before the 2004-05 lockout (2012-13 was a half season, for a reminder) and putting up a strong fight as the underdogs, the Leafs seemed to be on the right path.

With an offensive group spread amongst Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk (JVR) Patrick Marleau, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, a blue line led by Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, goalie Frederik Andersen, coach Mike Babcock manning the bench, and GM Lou Lamoriello behind the desk, Leafs Nation had every right to feel proud to cheer on the Leafs, but still doubtful. Were they just a fluke? They climbed to the top, but would they tumble back down?

No! They stayed on course, burning an entertaining path to a playoff spot, smashing records left right and centre, but hit a few bumps along the way.

October was a good, but concerning effort. They won and lost games in crazy, high scoring fashions; 7-2, 8-5, 6-3. They could clearly score, but couldn’t protect the net, or stop pucks getting between the pipes.

November was a much better effort, which saw lesser wins in a crazy fashion, including a six game winning streak where they outscored their opponents 22-8.

Come December, Babcock began tightening up the team defensively, and though they were on the right track, their offence stifled.

The Leafs carried that dark cloud over into the New Year, and by the halfway point of the season, were third in their division, but won only 2 of their last 10. By the midway point of January, a bright cloud took over.

This part of the season, the part that counted, they didn’t faulter. They chased goalies from the net, sent whole teams skating away with their heads down. They regained that spark, which even saw them win 9 out of 10 games.

The team finished third in their conference, thanks to the calibre of talented players.

The first line consisted of youngsters Matthews, Nylander, and Zach Hyman, all playing in their sophomore seasons. Nylander and Matthews continued as a pair similar to Malkin and Crosby, or Messier and Gretzky. Hyman would fight along the boards, creating space for Nylander to set up a goal for Matthews.

Despite missing 20 games due to injuries, Matthews was as sharp as ever, registering a total of 34 goals and 63 points, second overall in both. Hyman accumulated a personal best 15 goals and 40 points. Nylander ended up with 61 points, same as last year, and though he did struggle mainly throughout the first half of the seasons, his play was still consistent.

The second line was the most exciting, consisting of Kadri, Marner, and Marleau. All three brought something different to the ice; Kadri provided a scoring ability mixed with a knack to battle opponents, Marner brought speed and playmaking skills, and Marleau added the veteran depth.

The third line of JVR, Tyler Bozak, and Connor Brown wasn’t the fastest or most entertaining, but still had chemistry to drive many pucks behind the net. Brown was the subtle player; Bozak was the faceoff wizard.

The fourth line wasn’t as stable, but saw Leo Komarov, grinder Matt Martin, speedy Kasperi Kapanen, and veterans Dominic Moore and Tomas Plekanec all fight for a spot to provide further depth.

The Leafs’ weakest part, defence, has improved. Gardiner and Rielly provided the blue line offence, combining for 11 goals. Both reached the 50-point mark, and achieved personal best in assists and points. Veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey, along with Nikita Zaitsev, provided a safety net for the forwards.

Andersen is proving himself to be one of the best goalies in the league. Calm under pressure, with eagle vision, he is the Leafs’ MVP. Finishing with 2.81 goals against average (which should decrease) and a .918 save percentage (which should increase), he set a Leafs record of most wins by a goalie in a season with 38 (and fourth league wide.)

The defence needs to tighten up a bit, relieve some pressure off Andersen, as the team gave up the 3rd most shots on goal.

Remember those franchise records smashed? They include most points in a season (105), most wins (49), and most home wins (29). Other impressive stats include being tied for second overall in goals for with 277, 11th in goals against (down from 22 last season) 2nd overall on the power play, and 11th overall on the penalty kill.  Through all this, the records, the games, individual performances, and team cohesiveness, the Leafs have found something they’ve been lacking: an identity. They wear the jerseys proud, they know what it means, and they care now. For fans, the feeling is mutual.

Our playoff opponent is the Boston Bruins. Just saying the team’s name sends a chill up Leaf Nation’s spine. The last time we faced them in the playoffs, they pierced our heart with a knife, after we gave up a 4-1 lead with half a third period to play, then lost in overtime.

But this Leafs team is a different machine, an animal hungry for success, that will fight, and skate every which way for victory. They have smelt success, but can they taste it?

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