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Maple Leafs clinch playoff berth with center depth, Rielly development

Andersen's strong play backstops third straight trip to postseason

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

For the first time since the salary cap era began in the 2005-06 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three consecutive seasons.

The Maple Leafs (46-26-7) clinched a berth for the 2019 postseason with a 2-1 victory against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Monday. Toronto had not made three consecutive playoff appearances since getting there six straight times from 1998-99 to 2003-04.

The Maple Leafs will be looking to win their first playoff series since they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in 2004. Since then they've lost in first round against the Boston Bruins in 2013 (seven games), against the Washington Capitals in 2017 (six games), and against the Bruins in 2018 (seven games).

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Maple Leafs clinch a playoff spot

Here are five reasons why the Maple Leafs clinched a playoff berth:


1. Strength through the middle

Combining John Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract July 1, with Auston Matthews gave the Maple Leafs one of the best 1-2 punches at center in the NHL.

"It creates matchup issues with the opposition, and that's what you are looking for," coach Mike Babcock said.

Tavares established personal NHL-highs with 46 goals and 87 points. Matthews' 72 points are the most he's had in his three NHL seasons, and his 37 goals are the second-most. Add third-liner Nazem Kadri (16 goals) into the mix, and the Maple Leafs have received a combined 99 goals from their top three centers.

Babcock has long preached the need for strength up the middle, and now he's got it.


2. Rielly's breakout season

Whenever a defenseman is selected in the top 10 in the first round of an NHL Draft, the hope is that he'll develop into a bona fide No. 1 defenseman.

Morgan Rielly, selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 5 pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, has taken that step this season.

Video: TOR@OTT: Rielly joins exclusive club with 20th goal

Rielly leads NHL defensemen with 20 goals and is third with 71 points, both of which are personal NHL bests, as are his 51 assists, five game-winning goals and 217 shots on goal. They're the type of numbers that have put him into consideration for the Norris Trophy.

"It's hard in a way to explain it in a way that makes sense because it's just a matter of confidence," Rielly said. "I always knew I was capable of being more productive offensively.

"It's a matter of really believing that you can go out there and control a game. I think that takes time. For me it took a bit longer; for defensemen it takes longer."


3. Marner magic

Mitchell Marner leads the Maple Leafs with 92 points (25 goals, 67 assists). He's the first Toronto player with more than 90 points since Mats Sundin had 94 in 1996-97. And Marner's 67 assists are the fourth-most in a season by a Maple Leafs player, after Doug Gilmour had 95 in 1992-93 and 84 in 1993-94, and Darryl Sittler had 72 in 1977-78.

Marner's ability to find the open man is a key reason why his line, along with Tavares and Zach Hyman, has been Toronto's best all season.

"He just reads the game so well, not just with the puck but without it, that he's able to anticipate plays," Tavares said.


4. Net gains

Goalie Frederik Andersen's recent slump does not take away what he's meant to the Maple Leafs this season. He's been their backbone, the rock-solid foundation through the first five months of the season.

Video: TOR@NYI: Andersen denies Barzal's late bid

"Without Freddie we wouldn't be where we are," Rielly said.

Andersen's save percentage for 11 games in March was .890; in his first 46 games it was .923. He is tied for second in the League in wins (36) with Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets, two behind Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning (38).

"You are going to go through ups and downs through a season," Andersen said Saturday. "The goal is finding consistency. That's the key."


5. Secondary scoring

The offensive production of Tavares, Marner and Matthews has come as expected, but it's been the secondary scoring that has proved to be a big boost. Toronto has six players with at least 20 goals: Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Rielly, and Hyman and forward Andreas Johnsson each with 20. Forward Kasperi Kapanen has 19 with three games remaining.

Having 10 players with double-digit goal totals is the type of production Babcock is looking for.

"It shows depth," he said. "And that's what you need to have in this League."

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