At this point in the NHL season, teams have usually taken on an identity. One can be reasonably certain who they are and what they will do. And then you have the Toronto Maple Leafs, who continue to confound on the eve of April.
Despite their gaudy 42-19-5 record, they remain a Rubik’s Cube to figure out. Are they the efficient force that just dismantled the Florida Panthers and the Boston Bruins, or the gang that can’t shoot straight against lesser opponents?
Consider this: They are 13-4-1 against haves like Boston, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Edmonton, Florida, Tampa Bay, Vegas and Washington and 4-9-1 versus have-nots in Arizona, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg. And two of those four victories were secured over the mighty Senators.
It is true that all playoff-bound clubs have the occasional stinker – Los Angeles just got dragged under the deep blue sea by the Kraken – but Toronto seemingly has more than most.
The Winnipeg Jets, another Gordian knot, come to town for an engagement at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday. They are in hockey’s version of no-man’s land – not quite good enough to truly be a contender for a postseason berth but not quite bad enough not to be taken seriously. If they win 11 or 12 of their last 15 regular-season contests they could sneak in as a wild card, but it is a tall task.
Toronto enjoys the luxury of being a virtual lock for the Stanley Cup tournament. That is an achievement, of course, but whether the Maple Leafs can win a round, much less four, remains debatable. One minute they appear to be an elite congregation, the next they are as fuzzy as an Impressionist’s canvas.
If they are unable to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004, little has been gained. The I-told-you-sos will rain down on them like confetti at a victory parade.
What we do know is that their sharp-shooting centre Auston Matthews will score his 50th goal of the season on Thursday or soon after that. When he does, he will be the first Toronto player to reach the milestone since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94. Only two others – Rick Vaive (three times) and Gary Leeman – have done it in 105 years.
Matthews scored his 49th of the season in the 6-4 defeat of the Bruins at TD Garden on Tuesday and has 12 goals and 17 points over the last 10 games. He fell just short of 50 during the pandemic-abbreviated 2019-2020 campaign.
“We have been anticipating it for some time,” Sheldon Keefe, the Toronto head coach, said. “He has been setting an incredible pace, and now he is right there.”
Matthews may have been able to net an easy one near the end of the win over Boston but he will have ample opportunity now at home on Thursday or on Saturday in Philadelphia. The Flyers are last in the Metropolitan Division and just beginning to cope with life without long-time captain Claude Giroux, who was dealt to Florida before the trade deadline.
After that, the Maple Leafs head to Florida for interesting back-to-back engagements with the Lightning and Panthers and then take on the Stars in Dallas.
How they do on that road trip may offer a better clue to where they stand in the bigger picture.
It is still a bit murky because that is the way they have played over 66 games and, as always, there are still questions about their defence and goaltending.
Backup Petr Mrazek left in the first period on Tuesday with an apparent groin injury, while starter Jack Campbell continues to recover from a broken rib.
He may be well enough to return against Winnipeg, which would be his first start since March 8, but he had struggled significantly before he got hurt.
If Campbell still needs a few more days, rookie Erik Kallgren would get the nod and has proved most capable.
Toronto had a day off on Wednesday so the particulars won’t be known until everyone convenes for Thursday’s morning skate.
The same is true of the status of defencemen Justin Holl and Ilya Lyubushkin. The former was struck in the head by a puck on Tuesday while the latter was punched in the temple by Taylor Hall, who received a $5,000 fine for roughing.
Hall was retaliating after a hard hit along the boards. There is something to be said for throttling a team so badly that it takes penalties out of frustration as the Bruins did.
Whether that portends something positive for the Maple Leafs remains to be seen. You need a crystal ball to figure them out.