If you are a Leafs fan and the date May 13, 2013 does not ring a bell to you, I have just four words that might help you remember. Game Seven in Boston. Undoubtedly, it is not a date I like to bring up and remind Leafs Nation about but it is something that I believe holds relevance to this day. For those who might not be entirely aware of the situation, let me briefly explain. It was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals and the Leafs had a 4-1 lead in the third period but eventually lost in overtime. When the scoreboard read 10:42 on the clock, at Boston’s second goal, the roof started to fall in and defeat was inevitable. The Leafs collapsed under the pressure of a lead.
Since that day, the infamous 4-1 lead has become the butt-end of every joke in the book for all Leaf haters. There is no need for original content anymore because this is the stinger which every Leaf fan has to endure. For example, reminding a Leaf fan that the game is not over when they are going into the third up by three goals, is just a reworded version of it’s not over ’till the fat lady sings. Obviously this is an over-used cliché but still a truthful stab at the hearts of Leafs fans. It is time for this outlook to change for Leafs Nation. I like to think that I am a glass-half-full kind of guy so I am trying to look at the ever so daunting lead in the third as more of a challenge and not the dreaded demise which Leaf fans have unfortunately become so accustomed to. The Leafs of this season know how to create offence and score some goals, so losing a lead is the best possible problem to have for such a young squad.
Take a look at the first handful of games in 2017 prior to the bye week which is set to end tonight. Of course this is a very small sample size but it does show a most recent example of the vintage third period debacle which occurs almost on a regular basis. Although the Leafs famously won the Centennial Classic in dramatic fashion, it did not come with a full twenty minutes of defensive effort in the third period. The Leafs managed to score four unanswered goals for a 4-1 lead only to give it up in the span of the last eight minutes of the game. This was very reminiscent of the Game Seven nightmare. Granted the Leafs snagged the win in overtime but it was a close call to say the least. The following game against the Capitals was 4-2 going into the third, only to lose this time around in overtime. The third game against the Devils was a legitimate win but the Leafs still allowed two goals in the third period after leading 4-0. Lastly, the loss against Montréal was difficult right from the start for Toronto but it still exemplified a weakness in the third period having not been able to score a goal.
In all four games, the Leafs allowed a total of nine goals against in the third period compared to seven goals against in the first and second periods combined. On the other hand, the Leafs have scored a total of five goals in the third period and tallied eleven in the first and second periods combined. Keep in mind, of those eleven goals only two of them came in the second frame. What is evident here is that the Leafs’ offence typically starts off hot out the gate and slows right down in the second and third. On the flip side, the Leafs’ defence is more effective earlier in the game than later on as there have been goals against in the third period in all four games of 2017. However if we were to stand back and look at the bigger picture, the Leafs still picked up five out of a possible eight points in the standings. The glass is always half full but imagine if they had locked it down in the third period against the Devils and just had a better start against Montréal.
These stats which are taken from corsica.hockey (January 10, 2016), shows the goals against during all the times Toronto is leading in the game so far this season. Above you will notice the Leafs have let in the most goals when holding a lead. The chart below exemplifies the expected goals against when holding a lead. This highlights that even though the Leafs are playing a considerable amount of time ahead, they are expected to be one of the more susceptible teams in the league at allowing goals. Either way, the Leafs let in the most goals and are expected to have trouble defensively when they are ahead in the game.
The fact of the matter is the Leafs are bad at maintaining a third period lead and closing out a game with two more points in the standings. It quite often makes fans cringe going into the third period ahead of the opponent and it is unsettling to watch unfold. The lead in the third period brings with it negative connotations but there is some positivity that can be found if looked at from another perspective. Consider that of all the potential problems to have as a team, this might be the best possible one to have. As of opening night of this season, the Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL according to James Mirtle’s blog post this past October (mirtle.blogspot.ca. 2016-17 NHL Teams by Height, Weight and Age. October 12, 2016). Toronto has a relatively new coaching staff with the signing of Mike Babcock at the beginning of last season and an overhaul of the previous assistant coaching staff. It is also safe to say that the Leafs’ defensive unit is inferior when compared to the consistent playoff teams in the NHL.
It is a hard enough task to earn a lead going into the third period of an NHL game let alone to maintain it and get a win. Scoring goals is a talent which cannot be taught but losing a lead is a fixable and teachable problem. Imagine if the Leafs were not scoring at all and were losing games right from the get-go. According to NHL.com as of today, the Leafs are tied for ninth spot in the NHL in goals for and are in sixth place in goals for per game. Not bad at all for the second youngest team in the league; not bad at all.
This season is still far from over and it has been filled with a number of exciting moments and memories thus far. Evidently there are some problems the Leafs face each night that eventually cost some games but it is a learning curve for such a young core. There is so much young talent on this team that it is difficult to be frustrated with blowing a lead late in the game when the expectations should be fairly low to start with. In the years previous to the 2015-16 season, Leafs Nation has always been under the impression that the team is on the verge of getting into the playoffs only to be disappointed down the road. When the star-studded trio of Leafs management came in (Babcock-Shanahan-Lamoriello), fans were notified that there would be some painful days watching the Leafs in the near future. This honest and fair warning to the fan base has allowed for expectations to get lower and lower until there is a product worth believing in again. The early goings of the season have certainly expedited that initial plan for the future but it does not mean the Leafs are where they need to be.
The fact remains that a team cannot compete for the Stanley Cup, let alone compete in the playoffs, with a young and inexperienced core with a history of giving up multiple goal leads in the third period. Though it appears the Leafs are a couple steps ahead with their young and inexperienced core that can at least bury enough goals to win games. The raw talent is there and it will continue to flourish with more and more games played under their belts.
For now, I ask you to re-evaluate your thought process the next time you see the Leafs going into the third period with a lead. Do not listen to the Habs fan in the room telling you the game is far from over when the Leafs are up by two or three goals at the start of the third. Instead, watch the third period as another step towards growing as a team. View the third period as a challenge to overcome and not an accident waiting to happen. If they lose a lead and potentially one or two points in the standings as a result, remember it is all part of the process. It is better to score some goals and work on systems and team defence as opposed to having to worry about how to score these goals in the first place. Leafs Nation, it is time to relax and watch the process occur as it naturally should.