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Hockey The Leafs are vastly better this year as they head to the NHL playoffs

Perhaps it is the strength of the playoff opponent that awaits them – either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Boston Bruins – but there does not seem to be a sense among Maple Leafs players of just how much better the team is than it was a year ago.

Despite the franchise-record number of wins in this NHL regular season, 48, and matching a team record in points, 103, and a fan base that is historically optimistic beyond reason, the Maple Leafs are facing something of a let’s-see approach heading into next week’s playoffs.

Maybe it’s the fact there were only five personnel changes in the everyday lineup from one year ago. But each one of those five new faces – Patrick Marleau, Tomas Plekanec, Ron Hainsey, Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen (who played in only eight games before the 2017 playoffs) – made a significant impact.

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There is no arguing this is a vastly different team than the 2017 edition that slid into the second wild-card playoff spot on the last weekend of the regular season with 40 wins and 95 points.

An informal survey of the players shows they believe experience and confidence to be the two most important differences from a year ago.

Going into their first game, expected to be next Thursday in either Boston or Tampa, Maple Leafs players will have 521 playoff games under their collective belt. With that comes confidence, often the ingredient that pushes talented teams over the top.

Leo Komarov.

The Canadian Press

“The difference is knowing for a while we were going to make the playoffs so it’s more relaxed than it was last year,” Leo Komarov said. “Some of our guys got experience last year so they know [the playoffs] are kind of normal games but just a little bit different.

“You don’t have to be that nervous. The confidence of this team is probably way higher than last year.”

In that sense, that six-game series lost to the Washington Capitals, with five of the games going to overtime, is expected to make an enormous difference with the team’s most important players. Among the defencemen, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev had no playoff experience last year while Jake Gardiner had just six games. Offensive spark plugs Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner also saw their first playoff games in 2017.

“I think the experience we had last year goes a long way,” Rielly said. “Where we’re at now, you have different expectations. Last year, we came in and made the playoffs on one of the last games of the year.

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“Not to say we didn’t believe in ourselves but it’s a different situation, different feeling. It’s new faces, we’re older, more experienced, more mature. It’s just different.”

While some of the young players on the team had slow starts or had to fight injuries (Matthews and Zaitsev), all of them improved. The Leafs will finish the season with at least seven players who have 50 or more points, including two defencemen, Rielly and Gardiner. They also have six 20-goal scorers.

The confidence of this team is probably way higher than last year.

— Leo Komarov

After pushing his way into the conversation for the Vézina Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s best goaltender, Frederik Andersen slipped in the past month but looked strong in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.

However, it is the newcomers who might make the biggest difference come playoff time. Hainsey and Marleau brought big-game experience to the team, with Hainsey winning a Stanley Cup last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Marleau bearing an impressive résumé of playoff and international competition.

Joining Hainsey as a new face on defence was Dermott, promoted in January from the farm team. The rookie quickly showed he has elite speed and puck-handling skill, which meant all three pairs could now move the puck.

While matching Marner with Nazem Kadri proved to be a success, making the shutdown line equally dangerous as a scoring unit, the transformation of the fourth line was almost as important. The key there was replacing Matt Martin with Kasperi Kapanen for the last half of the season. Plekanec was brought in at the trade deadline and while he has not been a statistical hit, his ability to play for short periods anywhere in the lineup as well as kill penalties is an important addition. The fourth line is now a scoring threat to be reckoned with, especially if another late call-up, Andreas Johnsson, gets back in the lineup if there is an injury.

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It is common in the NHL playoffs for the scoring stars to struggle, since everyone checks like a demon in the postseason. Success is often determined by the unsung heroes, which is why NHL playoff lore is littered with names such as John Druce and Chris Kontos.

All of the Leafs’ top three lines can score like a No. 1 unit and the fourth line is in position to provide that playoff-scoring story.

“Probably the biggest thing is everyone on our team knows to work every day thanks to experience,” Komarov said. “We had a small chance against Washington last year and it was close but they were a step better. This year, we need to be the step better and keep it going.”

How do they compare?

2016-17 One year ago, this was the starting lineup for the Maple Leafs in the first game of their first-round series against the Washington Capitals, who finished first over all with 118 points. The numbers in brackets are each player’s playoff games to that point:

Forwards

Zach Hyman (0), Auston Matthews (0), William Nylander (0)

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Leo Komarov (7), Nazem Kadri (7), Connor Brown (0)

James van Riemsdyk (46), Tyler Bozak (5), Mitch Marner (0)

Matt Martin (24), Brian Boyle (100), Kasperi Kapanen (0)

Defence

Jake Gardiner (6), Roman Polak (49)

Matt Hunwick (20), Morgan Rielly (0)

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Martin Marincin (0), Connor Carrick (0)

Goal – Frederik Andersen (28)

That was a team total of 292 playoff games. Then Polak suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game, which reduced the total to 243 since he was replaced by another playoff rookie, Nikita Zaitsev.

2017-18: Here is the projected lineup for the first game in this year’s opening round of the playoffs (with 521 games of postseason experience), barring any injuries in the regular-season finale Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens:

Forwards

Hyman (6), Matthews (6), Nylander (6)

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Patrick Marleau (177), Kadri (13), Marner (6)

Van Riemsdyk (52), Bozak (11), Brown (6)

Komarov (13), Tomas Plekanec (87), Kapanen (6)

Defence

Rielly (6), Ron Hainsey (25)

Gardiner (12), Zaitsev (4)

Travis Dermott (0), Polak (51)

Goal – Andersen (34)

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