When the NHL first announced the 24 team return to play format that included a play-in round in addition to the four playoff rounds that lead to the Stanley Cup finals, it was very hard to know what kind of hockey this format would yield.
No team in the history of the NHL has had to win 15 or more games to lift the Stanley Cup. This season for many has an asterisk beside it, specially for the team that ends up lifting Lord Stanley’s Mug. But in reality this may be the hardest season to win the Cup. Yes, it will take more wins than say what the St. Louis Blues had to go through last season, but then there is the bubble and quarantine as well. The team that wins it all could very well be the team that keeps its players the healthiest in terms of Covid-19, injuries, and conditioning.
The Toronto Maple Leafs seemed to have done just this, with their players showing up determined and healthy for training camp. Maple Leafs fans got to see Morgan Reilly (broken foot) and Ilya Mikheyev (torn tendons in the forearm), Jake Muzzin (broken hand) healthy and in great shape. The Maple Leafs vs Maple Leafs intrasquad camp scrimmages yielded great insight for Leafs Nation as they got to see how healthy and conditioned Ilya Mikheyev was as he played on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner and looking great, being voted camp MVP by the media on hand.
Barrie slashing penalty leads to soccer-style penalty shot
Ilya Mikheyev makes no mistake
Russian may be the Phase 3 MVP (media voting soon) pic.twitter.com/GTIVQGiMra
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) July 23, 2020
The presence of Mikheyev really solidifies the top two lines for the Maple Leafs as they head into a series with the Columbus Bluejackets who play a very consistent trapping defensive game that tries to shut down any and all opposition offense.
The key for the Maple Leafs here is to do what whatever they need to, to get past the Blue Jackets as the NHL seems to have unknowingly tossed them a carrot.
The NHL’s 24 team format re-seeds teams after the preliminary round where eight teams are playing for their playoff lives all while the 4 top teams in their respective conferences are playing a round robin tournament. This round robin tournament is a great thing for the Maple Leafs and their Stanley Cup hopes. Depending on how the Round Robin tournament goes, the Bruins and Washington Capitals could end of playing each other guaranteeing an elimination of a Stanley Cup contender.
The Maple Leafs are currently tied 1-1 in their series with Columbus play tonight at 8pm EST (Game 3) and also on Friday at 8pm EST (Game 4), with game 5 (if necessary) being played on Sunday August 9th. So far the standings for the round robin standings look FAVORABLE for the Maple Leafs (image below) with only 3 games left to be played.
The best case scenario for the Maple Leafs could be if the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals finish the Round Robin tournament in the three and four slot.
If the Bruins and Capitals finish in the 3 & 4 spot after the Round Robin tournament is done, the Leafs will avoid both teams until the Eastern Conference Finals (if they make it that far). So yes, this season is an unorthodox one. With everything that has happened this year and as long as it has taken for the NHL to get this far and playing again, the Maple Leafs may have their best opportunity to advance further in the playoffs than they have in many years.
I for one am very optimistic about the possibilities for this season and what the Maple Leafs can get out of it. Leafs Nation and Leafs fans everywhere should be optimistic as well. The Bruins have not won a game since hockey has resumed. That is another anomaly that points to the idea of the possibilities and that anything is possible in this new format.
by Shahriar Balouchi