The Maple Leafs can pull off this comeback…with a little of Game 4’s luck

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the Maple Leafs' Game 4 win over the Panthers, the message the Maple Leafs sent by laying it all out there, Joseph Woll's performance in net, and if the dynamic of the series changed after Game 5 was forced.

The Leafs would feel good about their position against the Florida Panthers…if the 3-1 hole didn’t make that impossible. There would be plenty of reason for optimism were the proverbial sword of Damocles not looming as their ever-present reality. But it is.

After Toronto’s Game 1 loss in this series, I wrote the following paragraph about what it would take for them to get past Florida:

So what has to happen is the Leafs need to absorb the superpowers that saw the Lightning go from a fun offensive force to a smothering unit and become that bad guy. Not in terms of punchy-ness or post-whistle shenanigans, but they need to slow things down, take ice away, and make it hard for Florida to do their preferred thing. I believe it was Harvey Dent (of Batman fame) who once said: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” and oh buddy, it’s Villain Season for the Leafs.

Those Lightning were the best offensive team in the league over the two years they won the Atlantic from 2017-2019. Problem was scoring got tighter in the playoffs for them, they didn’t get tighter defensively, and their goals against went from 2.8 per game to 3.2 in the playoffs, which was enough to get them punted (swept, in one case). The next three years – the ones where they went to the Stanley Cup Final – they gave up 3.1 goals against per game in the regular season, but cut that to 2.3 against in the playoffs. Their offensive output went down a breath as a result over those three years (2.8 to 2.7 goals for per game), but it was their defence that got them through.

The Leafs have been that offensive force in the past, but have shown they can be that villain, and Game 4 was the perfect example. Florida hadn’t been below 14 slot shots in a game this series until Wednesday night, when they tallied just six. The neutral zone went from the autobahn to downtown Toronto traffic. The Cats have been a massive transition success in the post-season – having scored nine goals within five seconds of a turnover – and the Leafs managed the puck in a way that didn’t allow them those quick strike opportunities.

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Now with that, there are other bright spots for the Leafs. One is that at some point, their offence is going to break through – if they’re allowed enough games played for that to happen.

Here’s a block from Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic (from this article here), on the amount this Core Four has created versus what they’ve scored. The Leafs are past caring about process, but these are just indications of what should be ahead. They generally create about five “expected goals” per three game span:

As it pertains to the first three games of the Florida series, the Core Four collectively fired 7.1 expected goals on net, only the second time in their playoff career they’ve been above seven (the other being the previous three-game stretch). That’s a rarity even during the season, but when they do that they average 6.9 goals.

That they managed zero feels almost impossible and is by far their lowest goals scored below expected in a three-game stretch ever. Their previous worst was minus-5.3 in April and their previous playoff worst before the Florida series was minus-1.8 in the first three games against Columbus in 2020.

Even if they continue to finish at a rate lower than their expected goals (and create fewer expected goals), they’re still going to score more than they have, as seen in Game 4, where they got some luck.

Part of the drought is that Sergei Bobrovsky has been great, and he’s not typically what you’d call a “great” goalie. He’s 34 years old and was a .901 save percentage guy in 50 starts this season. Heck, they started journeyman AHL goaltender Alex Lyon to even get into the playoffs. By the fancy stats (goals saved above expected), the first two games of this series were Bobrovsky’s best two game pairing of his entire time with the Panthers.

I don’t think he’s outright bad, but I do expect that at some point some of these opportunities will start to fall for the Leafs, who’ve now scored exactly two goals in six straight games.

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Two other things to like for the Leafs: First, they’ve shown they’ve got good enough goaltending in either Ilya Samsonov or Joseph Woll to make the saves they need to win. They can control the chances against enough to help those guys be successful. And second, the Panthers have poor special teams, and the animosity seemed to pick up last game, which could benefit the Leafs if there are more penalties to be called both ways.

But this all loops us back around to the intro paragraph here, and that dangling sword on a string above their collective head. If you’re a fan of the Leafs, you have to feel really good about some of these things, but terrible that they didn’t get a bounce off a ref’s knee, or a trickler from the point, or something in one of the first three games.

I often think back to an article I read (here) a handful of years ago on luck in sports (from work done by Michael Mauboussin), and how hockey is more at its mercy than the other major sports. They included this graphic, which always made sense to me:

Michael Mauboussin’s skill-luck continuum

In hockey, you can’t guarantee your best player will get an offensive touch in the biggest moments like in basketball; you can’t stop, think and call set plays like in football; and you don’t have huge sample sizes like baseball’s regular season on which to lean. Instead there’s a small bouncing object on literal ice, referees and randomness that affect outcomes. In Game 4, those things fell in Toronto’s favour for the first time in this series.

Had they gotten the breaks in Game 2, when they were the better team, this would feel different. Had the Leafs got a random kick in Game 3 when they lost in overtime, this would feel different. Even Game 1 could’ve swung the other way on luck.

In Game 5 (and potentially Game 6, and 7), it’s not hard to consider the Leafs as the slight favourite, which is backed by the betting odds. But hockey is not so kind or simple as “play your best and you’ll get the result.” The Leafs failed to win in three tries to start this series, and at this point, simply being better might not be good enough.

They have a formula, and if they execute it, they’re at the mercy of the hockey gods. And given the Leafs’ history of relying on help from them, it’s hard not to see that sword above their heads come falling down fast in the week ahead.

All they can control is their own play, and the rest will be up to chance. But the good news is, they still have one.

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