While the Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff hopes have become miraculously rejuvenated after gutsy wins on back-to-back nights in Buffalo and Ottawa, there is still much cause for concern with the club that currently sits 12th in the Eastern Conference.
For much of the season, several key members of the squad have pledged allegiance to the Maple Leaf because of the fact that they "bleed blue and white". What was noticeable over the weekend was, should the Leafs make the playoffs, they will bleed the same colour as everyone else--red. And they'll bleed often.
Gone are the years when the Leafs possessed grit and toughness to push around other teams in the league. The Leafs have been widely regarded as one of the softest teams in the league this season, and that lack of sandpaper was on display again this weekend.
Both the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators attempted to exploit this weakness. They hit the Leafs hard and often, and it appeared from the outset of each game that the Leafs could be run over physically, and eventually on the scoreboard as well.
However, the Leafs somehow managed to pull out both games based on hard work and determination. But how much longer will that last?
In previous seasons, especially the ones in which the club qualified for the playoffs, it was the Leafs who were able to run the Senators into the ground. Ottawa's more skilled players gave way to the tenacity of the Leafs' checking and that was the primary reason for Ottawa's demise at the hands of Toronto for four years.
Fastforward to March 22, 2008 and there was a complete role reversal. Yet Toronto somehow managed to escape Scotiabank Place with two massive points.
It can be argued, with much credit, that Ottawa beat themselves on Saturday night. How could a team who was at one point running away with the Eastern Conference, manage to blow a two goal lead late in the second period to their biggest rival? And this in the first meeting between the two teams since Toronto embarassed Ottawa on home ice just three weeks prior.
Clearly there is still a psychological mind-block facing the Ottawa team: an inability to defeat those pests in blue and white when it matters the most.
However, Ottawa's ineptitudes should not hide the fact that this Leaf club may not be built for the post-season. The toughness that wins playoff rounds is not showing itself on the Leafs' roster. Darcy Tucker, arguably the peskiest Maple Leaf of all, cannot perform his usual role due to several nagging injuries. The only other sources of grit come from Mark Bell, Kris Newbury and occasionally Jason Blake. The blueline, with the loss of Hal Gill, does not strike fear into the hearts of many opponents, especially with Carlo Colaiacovo gone for the season. Mr. Glass was the only defenceman who played with reckless abandon, and that is likely why he's spent so much of his career on the injured list.
Moreover, the Leafs may wear themselves down in the final two weeks of the season. When every night feels like a playoff game, getting into the post-season may be too much for this fragile club, who will continue to get pushed around over their final six games.
Also, Vesa Toskala is already approaching forty consecutive starts, and any post-season miracle run will need to see Toskala at his absolute best. The workload may be getting to him as, although he is still sharp, he can get sloppy at times throughout the course of a game, as was evident on at least two of Ottawa's four goals Saturday night.
For now, Leafs fans should embrace this magical wave of optimism. Even if it doesn't land them in the playoffs, its been one hell of a ride. But they should proceed with caution. The deck is stacked against Toronto, and making it in is only the beginning.