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Five Questions: Reimer, defense still issues for Leafs

by Dan Rosen /

The Toronto Maple Leafs got to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a potent offense, some sharp goaltending and a strong penalty kill. They also had to overcome a leaky defense and the below-par performances of a couple of would-be key players.

Now the city of Toronto is about to be overrun by playoff fever for the first time since 2004. If they want it to last more than one round, here are five questions the Maple Leafs will have to answer in the affirmative starting this week:

1. Is James Reimer ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Reimer will feel the heat like never before once the playoffs begin. If he thought it was tough trying to become the No. 1 goalie in Toronto before, well, now he'll learn how tough it really is to be the No. 1 goalie on a playoff team in Toronto.

Ed Belfour was the last to go through it, in 2004, but he already was a Stanley Cup champion. Curtis Joseph was the Maple Leafs' goalie in 2002 when they went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but he had played in 97 playoff games, including 40 in Toronto.

Reimer has not skated in a playoff game since 2009, when he was with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.

The answer to this question will come quick, but Reimer has shown in his short time with the Maple Leafs he isn't bothered by publicity or adversity. He'll have to tune it all out now, because the skeptics will come out as soon as he gives up his first goal.

2. Can the defense hold up in front of Reimer?

Dion Phaneuf has been Mr. Everything on the Maple Leafs' blue line this season, and his defense partner, Carl Gunnarsson, helped give Toronto a solid top pair.

However, beyond Phaneuf and Gunnarsson, there are leaks that have to be plugged if Toronto is going to make a run.

It's fair to wonder if they can be plugged because the Maple Leafs' weakness all season has been on the blue line and nothing changed in the past few weeks of the season, when they were trying to clinch a playoff berth.

The good thing is Toronto has a strong penalty kill and forwards who know they have to backcheck hard to help the defensemen in 5-on-5 situations. The bad thing is that sometimes the Maple Leafs rely too much on their forwards to produce and they succumb to lapses on the defensive end.

That can't happen in the playoffs because the opposition will tighten up defensively, meaning Toronto can't rely on scoring its way out of those defensive struggles.

3. Will the penalty kill be the Maple Leafs' biggest strength?

It has ranked in the top five in the League all season and needs to stay at that level in the playoffs if the Maple Leafs are going to get out of the first round.

Four of the past five Stanley Cup champions had a top-five penalty kill in the playoffs (the Boston Bruins were sixth in 2011). Four of the past six Stanley Cup finalists (New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks) had top-five penalty-killing units in the regular season.

This is the area of special teams that matters most in the playoffs, and this was the area of special teams that was Toronto's biggest strength in the regular season. If it translates, the Maple Leafs have a good chance for some success.

4. Can Phil Kessel be the man?

Everything Phil Kessel has done in a Maple Leafs uniform until now is a little bit less important, because this is the first time he'll get a chance to show Torontonians what he can deliver in the clutch.

Kessel drives the offense. He's been doing it for the past two seasons; now he has to do it in the playoffs.

This isn't about pressure, because Kessel is under pressure to perform every night no matter the circumstances. That's what happens when you're the leading scorer of a team and when you were acquired for a package that in part turned into the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft (Tyler Seguin).

This is instead about focus and about handling what is about to come his way. Kessel is soft spoken and a bit of an introvert. If he performs in the playoffs, he can stay that way; if he doesn't, he'll be questioned and criticized, and that's where things can get dicey for him.

He had 15 points in 15 career playoff games with the Boston Bruins.

5. Will the Maple Leafs be able to handle the hysteria about to overtake Toronto?

The fans have been waiting nine years for this, which means the entire city will be wrapped up in everything Leafs, so much so it may appear that a blue-and-white net has been cast over the city and the team is the only subject of discussion allowed.

The media coverage, already heightened on a slow day in Toronto, will be massive. The critics will be throaty, waiting for the moment they can jump on the smallest mistake, the most minor of errors.

How the players and the coaches handle the increased attention will go a long way in determining if the Maple Leafs can make a run this season.


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