The Toronto Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season. Since then, the Leafs have missed the playoffs by two points in 2006, one in 2007, 11 in 2008, 12 in 2009, 14 in 2010, and eight last season.
This season, the Leafs are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since that fateful year. Even with some missteps, they have found a way to stay in the race and if all goes according to plan, Leaf fans will have a lot to celebrate come April.
Here are the 12 reasons I think the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs.
For the majority of the season, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have been one of, if not the highest-scoring duo in the NHL. When you consider that the NHL has some great duos in the Sedin twins, Toews and Kane, Ovechkin and Backstrom and Perry and Getzlaf, the fact that Kessel and Lupul are at the top is saying something.
These two are the heart of this team and if they can play the way that made them All-Stars for the rest of the season, the Leafs will be sitting pretty.
The Maple Leafs have the fifth-best power play in the league. Even without the injured John-Michael Liles, the Leafs have found a way to convert when they need to, scoring 34 goals on 173 chances.
Once Liles returns, the power play will get even better.
What has been the Leafs weakness for the entire season, they have had a perfect penalty kill in the month of January. Although it hasn't gotten them out of the basement of the standings when it comes to the penalty kill, the fact that they have gone an entire month without allowing a power play goal hopefully bodes well for the future.
With Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner, the Maple Leafs have four offensive-minded defensemen that on any night could give the Leafs a win all by themselves. Those four alone have tallied 77 points.
The Leafs need these four to continue bringing the offense.
Whether it's Jonas Gustavsson or James Reimer, the Leafs need to continue to do what they're doing with their goaltenders. The hot streak that Gustavsson is on now could go on for a while, but if he falters, James Reimer can step in and hopefully regain the form that he had last season.
The more fresh the goalies are, the better position the Leafs will be in come the playoffs.
After a very slow start, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur are finally starting to look like the players they were last year.
Grabovski is playing his best hockey of the season with eight games in the past three games and being named the NHL's First Star of the week for last week. MacArthur has five points in that time span and Kulemin, while still struggling to put the puck in the net, has two assists in each of the last two games.
If one of these three aren't traded and they can bring back the play that made them so popular last year, the Leafs will get the secondary scoring they have been looking for the entire season.
Saying any of those at the beginning of the season would have elicited laughter from anyone you told, but the fact is those have been the stats for a while in the Eastern Conference.
Some of these surprise teams will be of great help to the Maple Leafs. The Sabres being where they are definitely helps the Leafs as it is one less team to worry about. The Panthers have already fallen from the Southeast Division lead and into ninth, so if they're not careful, they could fall even further.
If the Leafs can take advantage of the struggles of these teams, they will make the playoffs.
As John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong get set to return to the lineup, the Leafs are finally getting fully healthy. With those returns, the Leafs will have almost the exact same lineup they had at the start of the season, and that's when they had their greatest success this season.
Hopefully it will stay this way.
Jake Gardiner. Nazem Kadri. Joe Colborne.
These three players have been a great help to the Leafs. Although not considered a rookie by NHL standards, Kadri has finally started to look like a player could player who could stay in the NHL full-time. Colborne has only played nine games in injury relief this season, but didn't look out of place scoring four points.
The biggest surprise of all is Gardiner. From a long shot to make the team in training camp to being of the ice-time leaders on the team, he has surpassed all expectations and looks to be a fixture on the Leafs blue line for years to come.
The Maple Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, yet they have somehow managed to compete for a playoff spot for the entire season.
This team that Brian Burke has slowly put together is playing as a team. They have come together and they all want to prove their doubters wrong. The only way to do that: make the playoffs.
Now, I'm not saying it will be a big one but Brian Burke has a penchant for making a deal around this time of the year. Whether it's the top six player he has been looking for or simply a veteran with playoff experience to guide the young Leafs.
Hopefully Burke won't have to give up much of the team that he has now or or top prospects.
These are the records of the Toronto Maple Leafs post All-Star or Olympic break of every season since the lockout. The problem has been that they have been too far out of the playoffs at that point for their great records to matter.
This year they are in a much better position and if the Leafs can have a similar record to any of the previous seasons, the playoffs are a lock.