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Knee Jerk Reaction: Clinching will have to wait


The Toronto Maple Leafs had a chance to clinch a playoff spot tonight, and, well, didn’t.

With a single point against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Leafs would have punched their ticket to the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs, their eighth straight playoff berth and eighth in a row since the selection of Auston Matthews in the 2016 NHL Draft

It wasn’t your standard “typical Leafs going ahead and mailing it in against a TRUE playoff team when adversity hits them in the face!” type of game. They played well – they outshot the Lightning 29-26, out-hit them 58-56, and dominated in the faceoff dot. It wasn’t a matter of not showing up, or taking their foot off the gas pedal. You can chalk the reason for the loss up to something as simple as the Lightning are still a very good hockey team and are more than just a point away from guaranteeing themselves a spot in the playoffs.

One takeaway to be had from tonight’s game is that Joseph Woll didn’t do himself any favours in the battle to start Game 1 of the playoffs. To say all four goals against were his fault would be both wrong and disingenuous, but he allowed the first goal on the opponent’s first shot of the game for the third time in his past four starts, which is a troubling trend on its own. In the playoffs, you need those saves early, and while I doubt Keefe is going to point at his last four starts as direct reasoning to start Samsonov instead, the latter has also outperformed the former in the second half of the season.

The Lightning move up to four points behind the Leafs, who are four points back of the Florida Panthers themselves. Although the playoff picture seems to be wide open right now, you just get the sense that it will be Toronto and Florida in the first round. It’s hard to imagine the Panthers are going to continue to spiral for the rest of the season, and while Tampa has seen a nice little late-season push, banking on either the Leafs to slump hard enough to fall into a wildcard position or the Panthers to continue their fall down to earth doesn’t seem overly sustainable. Some sort of happy medium that sees the Leafs rematch against their second-round opponent last season seems like a likelier outcome.

The Leafs will have another chance to clinch their playoff spot on Saturday in Montreal when they take on the Canadiens. Surely their oldest rival won’t show up and play the game of their lives to prevent that from happening…right?

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