They lost a battle, but they’re ready for the war.
So much an afterthought was this Toronto Maple Leafs regular season finale in Winnipeg that Sheldon Keefe’s primary objective was getting on the flight home without incurring any new injuries.
Job done, in that event, even after squandering two leads and losing 4-2 to the Jets.
“We’re not overthinking anything that went on here the last couple games,” Keefe said. “It’s more just a matter of getting through it healthy, as we had talked about, and we have done that so we can all just turn the page and worry about Montreal.”
They had already gotten the celebrations out of the way after clinching the North Division title last weekend. The Leafs finished this pandemic-shortened campaign with a 35-14-7 record — good for a .688 points percentage, the best in franchise history.
Auston Matthews was held off the scoresheet on Friday but will collect the Rocket Richard Trophy for a spectacular 41-goal season. The final loss to the Jets did nothing to dim the bright lights on Jack Campbell’s 17-3-2 record and .921 save percentage. And Mitch Marner is headed for a fourth-place finish in the league scoring race with 67 points despite being rested in Friday’s finale.
And yet, as much as those achievements suggest that the group could be primed for a big playoff run, the slate will be wiped clean by the time a best-of-seven starts with the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.
That explains why these final days of the season felt so anticlimactic. The lineup the Leafs rolled out at Bell MTS Place was probably down at least four players that will play in Game 1 — Marner, Zach Hyman, Riley Nash and Rasmus Sandin. And as much as this group showed something by finishing among the NHL’s elite, it knows that the only real measure will be tracked starting now.
They believe they’ve never been more ready.
“I just think we have a good sense of our identity and the way we need to play to have success,” said captain John Tavares. “Obviously we believe in each and every individual and what they bring in their role, no matter how big, how small. We really like our team, the chemistry we have.”
“I think we’ve got a great mix of guys that are in their prime and experienced. I think we’ve gone through some hardships as a group,” added veteran Jason Spezza. “I think there’s guys in the room that feel like we have a lot to prove come playoff time after last year. We’ve been a hungry team since losing to Columbus [in August] and now it’s our time to kind of show that we’ve matured as a group and we’ve played better hockey and we’ve focused in on things that we knew were weaknesses last year.”
The biggest gains were made on the defensive side of the puck. The Leafs became a team in 2021 that gave up way fewer shots, high-danger chances and goals against.
You could even see it in Friday’s loss to Winnipeg as they were on the right side of shot attempts (59 per cent), high-danger chances (60 per cent) and expected goals (58 per cent), according to Natural Stat Trick.
They’ve earned the confidence that was expressed by multiple veteran voices in the dressing room. They were unquestioned Kings of the North while sitting on top of the division for more than 100 days, and appear far more capable of managing their way through 2-1 and 3-2 games than previous iterations of the Shanaplan.
“I think we’re built for the playoffs,” Spezza said.
“It’s obviously going to be an absolute battle out there, but we’re prepared,” Campbell said. “It’s just going to be a lot of fun. We can’t wait.”
With the lengthy break ahead of the series, Keefe planned to sprinkle in two complete days off for his players around three practices. They’ve already faced Montreal 10 times this season, including four games in the last month alone.
Part of the intel gained already is just how much of a physical grind this promises to be against Montreal’s heavy defenders.
“Just collectively as a team we’re committed to doing the things that are necessary to win, but so is our opponent going to do those things,” Keefe said. “So it’s just a matter of staying with it, finding a level of consistency in our game even when it gets hard — and it will get hard.”
They’re heading into this matchup about as healthy as you could hope to be. Only defenceman Zach Bogosian is expected to be unavailable to start the series because of his shoulder injury.
That was the best news to come out of Game No. 56 in Winnipeg.
It will be recorded as a loss, but there were plenty of small victories to be found at the end of a regular season unlike any other.
“The reality is we will feel good when we leave here because you’ve completed part of the journey and you’ve earned the right to continue on past today,” Keefe said. “Not every team in the league has done that, but we’ve earned the right to push on beyond today and we’re excited about that.”