Monday, April 10, 2017

Weekend wrap: The Maple Leafs are in

Never in doubt — right, Leafs fans?

Heading into the season’s final weekend, there were a handful of first-round matchups left to be determined. But there was only one playoff spot on the line. And even that one was supposed to be all but locked in, at least according to the oddsmakers.

But "in theory" never gets you very far with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is why Leafs nation wasn't in an especially great mood heading into the weekend. Toronto went into the season's final days needing two points out of two games, and while the standings suggested that matchups with the Penguins and Blue Jackets were tough ones, neither Metro team had anything left to play for. Even a pair of Leafs losses could have been enough, especially if the Lightning and Islanders lost their own games. For most teams, it would be a slam dunk.

But again, these are the Leafs, where closing things out has been a bit of an issue over the last, oh, decade or so. And so you could forgive Maple Leafs fans for expecting the worse, and fans of every other team for gleefully waiting for the inevitable collapse.

And sure enough, Saturday's showdown with the Penguins went exactly to script. Phil Kessel hadn't scored in forever, but he did against the Leafs, because of course he did. Frederik Andersen got hurt and had to leave the game, because of course he did. The Maple Leafs scored the go-ahead goal into their own net on some sort of soccer set play in the third period, because the ghost of Harold Ballard showing up and flinging the puck into the top corner would have been just a little too on-the-nose.

This was every Toronto Maple Leafs game of the salary-cap era all rolled into one. Right up until it wasn't.

The Leafs tied it with five minutes left on Kasperi Kapanen's first-ever NHL goal, one that was just a little heavy on the symbolism:

Not only was Kapanen the key prospect in the Kessel trade, but his father figured prominently in the closing credits of the Maple Leafs' last full-season playoff run. That's how long it's been since the Leafs had a season like this — children are showing up to avenge their ancestors.

From there it was a go-ahead goal by Connor Brown and a miraculous Curtis McElhinney save on Sidney Crosby:

Then Auston Matthews got his 40th before the final buzzer. And just like that, the Leafs were in.

So where does it go from here? Probably not very far, if we're being honest. The Leafs coughed up a golden chance at a very winnable matchup with Ottawa by dropping last night's finale against Columbus. They'll get the Presidents' Trophy–winning Caps instead, and the best thing you could say about that matchup from a Toronto perspective is that they'll get a first-hand look at the sort of team they aspire to be someday.

But the team says Andersen should be OK and the Leafs did have some success against Braden Holtby this year, so who knows? It's not like the Capitals haven't endured a playoff collapse or two of their own over the years. The Leafs have already defied the odds to make it this far, so what's a 23-point gap in the standings? Maybe they'll make things interesting.

Or maybe not. Chances are, the Leafs will get roughly four games' worth of playoff experience and then call it a season. But that's four more than anyone thought they'd get heading into this season. And it's probably four more than most of their fans thought they'd be getting when Jake Gardiner was punting a potential game-winner into his own net.

Meanwhile, four other Canadian teams had already locked down their spot in the playoffs. But could any crack the end-of-season top five? On to the power rankings...

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, +54 true goals differential*): They came down the stretch with six straight losses before last night's win, earned just one win against a playoff team since March 2, and get a first-round matchup with the Penguins. It's still been a great season, but if they're going to make any playoff noise, they'll have to earn it.

4. Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, +23): They needed a late comeback to do it, but last night's win over the Kings clinched top spot in the Pacific and a date with the team they never lose to at home.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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