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Are the Maple Leafs turning into the Eastern Conference favorites?

Toronto Maple Leafs conference favorites

The Maple Leafs are 67 games into their season, and they might be starting to peak at just the right time. Led by young superstars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner the Leafs are young and dangerous, but are they really turning into the Eastern Conference favorites?

Time will tell how far the Maple Leafs go, but barring a catastrophic collapse, this team has all the tools to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. With teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers in the East, that will be no easy task.

Trending upwards

Going into last month, the Leafs had 63 points in 53 games. In February, the Maple Leafs ripped off an impressive 10-2-2 record, including wins versus the Bruins, Predators and Lightning. This strong month of play now has them at 85 points with 15 games yet to play.

The month of March will be a significant deciding factor in seeding for the playoffs. Out of their last 15, they play seven potential playoff teams, with four of them being in the Eastern Conference.

If the Leafs can play well during this stretch, they could potentially give themselves a home-ice advantage. The Leafs are very good at the Air Canada Centre, and their play at home has played a large part as to why they are so good this season.

Air Canada Centre advantage

Toronto has played 32 games at home this season and have been winners in 22 of them. In 13 of those games, the Leafs have tallied more than four goals, and are an impressive 12-0-0 in those games.

Attendance has been booming at the Air Canada Centre, and it is part of the reason as to why the Maple Leafs have been so good at home. Night in and night out, their crowds of over 19,000 people give the Leafs an added boost of energy.

With nine of their last 15 coming at home, Toronto will be looking to give themselves as much home ice as they can in the playoffs. It will be tough for any team to beat the Maple Leafs in a seven-game series; especially if Toronto has home-ice advantage.

Auston Matthews

Toronto Maple Leafs conference favorites
(Photo from James Mirtle)

Auston Matthews hasn’t played since Feb. 22 when he went down with a shoulder injury against the Islanders, but there is no doubt that when he is in there, he is a game breaker.

When Matthews is on the ice this season, the Leafs are 31-16-5 as opposed to just 8-4-2 without him. This season, he has 50 points on 28 goals and 22 assists. He started the season off very strong, but has slowed down due to injuries.

With this recent injury, the Maple Leafs are showing no signs of rushing Matthews back into play. The Leafs have a 17-point cushion between them and the next closest Atlantic Division team. With the added rest, Toronto will be hoping to get the Auston Matthews that they saw at the beginning of the season in October where he had 16 points in just 12 games.

Even without Matthews scoring, his presence on the ice creates lots of open opportunities and space for his teammates. Matthews has a Fenwick percentage of 53.6, which means that when he is on the ice, his team is controlling the puck in the offensive zone more times than the league average.

A lot of this is due to Matthews’ one-on-one ability. He does a phenomenal job creating space in the offensive zone, and it shows in his stats. Matthews hits the net on 59.3 percent of his shots, which is a very high percentage. This directly relates to his three points per 60 minutes of play average.

With Matthews coming back healthy for a playoff run, no one in the Eastern Conference will want to head to the Air Canada Centre to play the Leafs.

Maple Leafs defense

Toronto’s defense, led by Morgan Rielly, has been a pleasant surprise so far this season. The Leafs knew they were going to be able to put pucks in the back of the net, but they didn’t know how well they would be able to keep them out of their own.

They have hovered around league average all season, ranking 13th in goals against average, giving up 2.73 goals per game. But that is right where you need to be with a team that scores 3.19 goals per game.

A lot of the credit does have to go to goaltenders that rank fourth in team save percentage with a .919 percent on the fourth most shots allowed in the NHL.

Frederik Andersen has handled the bulk of the load, appearing in 55 of the Maple Leafs games this season. For a guy that has faced more than 1,800 shots on the season, he has done a fantastic job of weathering the storm and allowing a very dominant Leafs offense to win games.

All the Maple Leafs defense has been asked to do this year is to keep containment on the other team, and they have done just that. Toronto’s defense has held teams to two goals or less on 28 different occasions this season, and in those games, the team is 23-3-2. Heading into the playoffs if Toronto’s defense can continue with this formula they will be a tough team to beat.

Maple Leafs turning into Eastern Conference favorites?

The easy answer is maybe, but there are many stats and analytics that point to this being the case. If the Leafs can get a home-ice advantage through the first two rounds and a healthy Auston Matthews, they will be one of the biggest threats in the Stanley Cup Playoff. They have all the potential to turn into the Eastern Conference favorites, they just need to put it all together come playoff time.

 

Featured image by: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

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