May 14, 2013 by bmcconnelluwo
With the blue and white on the verge of starting their first playoff run since before Twitter was invented, there are a lot of questions about how well the budding team will fair in the postseason.
Among the concerns are how well Mr. Reimer will perform in his first playoff series, whether Kessel will continue dominating the score sheets and if our defence will be able to stand up big to the incredible pressure.
In light of all these uncertainties—and incredible excitement—I’ve compiled a list of four players I think will be the key for the Leafs in their new playoff-ready team.
1) James Reimer
This is a no-brainer number one pick. Reimer has answered all critics chirping about his lack of experience or skill in net and is one major reason the Leafs have done as well they have this year. As I write this, Reimer is ranked seventh in save percentage (.924) and fifth in shutouts (4) and is sitting on a goals against average of 2.46. Not too shabby when you consider the number of shots the 25 year old goalie has faced standing behind Toronto this year.
If the Leafs hope to move past round one Reimer will need to continue his stellar play and handle the pressure of the otherworldly Toronto playoff crowd. It’s going to be a tall order for him but this Leafs fan has nothing but faith in him. And it’s nice to have that confidence after 9 years of it being absent.
2) Phil Kessel
Phil the Thrill is another no-brainer of a pick but one that will be absolutely pivotal going into round one. Whether it’s against Montreal or Boston, Kessel’s laser of a shot and speed are going to play a crucial role in getting the pucks past either elite goalie. With 4 goals and 9 points to close out the last 5 games of the season, Kessel was on pace for a whopping a 104 points if this were an 82 game season.
Although he’s been absent from the playoffs since being traded from Boston, Kessel does have 15 games of playoff experience—something that is going to come in handy for the young Maple Leafs team. If he can shake off his critics who call him streaky and inconsistent, Kessel should be able to continue his scoring ways into round one. Kessel is a player who can steal games—let’s hope he’s up to the challenge.
3) Dion Phaneuf
A strong captain is always essential in the playoffs—to get the boys going, to make the big hit, to score the clutch goals. Think back to the Leafs in 2004. Our captain was hall of famer Mats Sundin. In my opinion, if the Leafs hope to go deep into the playoffs they’re going to need the leadership to push through the lows and to celebrate the highs.
Phanuef, for his own style of play, has stepped up to the plate this season under Carlyle. He’s been consistent, hitting, scoring at times and has been a solid shut down player to many of the league’s top players. He consistently tallies the most ice time on the Leaf which is quite impressive when you consider his task some nights—shut down Crosby, play the body all night on Stamkos. You name it, he does it. His -7 on the year is made impressive by the fact that he’s playing against people whose sole reason for being is to score goals. Phaneuf leads the defence core by example and he will have to continue to do this, in addition to his role as captain, if the Leafs are going to weather the playoff storm.
4) Jay McClement
To say this man has to step up would be ludicrous. McClement has been the Leafs most consistent defensive player all year—a fact that Carlyle would agree with wholeheartedly I’m sure. The Leafs’ penalty kill has improved incredibly over the last… well 9 years. It’s never a good thing when the Sportsnet Ontario announcer jokes that it’s actually quite impressive just how bad the Leafs PK has been since the 2004 lockout.
But this year’s penalty kill is a different story. They look poised, responsible and, above all, they shut down 87.4% of all power plays chances against them. This puts them at third in the league—pretty stellar improvement from 24 or 25. And McClement is a huge reason for this improvement. His poise, hockey smarts and consistency have become Carlyle’s go to penalty killing weapon as evidenced by the fact that he’s almost always on the ice during them. Keep doing what you’re doing in the playoffs, Jay, you’re playing great.