It's been a long journey this season for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans.
From firing GM Brian Burke during the prolonged offseason to the endless conversations and debates regarding the team's goaltending situation, Toronto has experienced a lot in just a few months.
With those discussions put to rest, however, attention quickly shifted to the Leafs being able to lock down their first postseason berth in a decade. The excitement is palpable right now within the fanbase affectionately known (to themselves at least) as "Leafs Nation."
With just seven games remaining and the Leafs all but assured of a playoff position (now would be the time for all Leafs fans to knock on wood), the team's attention has shifted to moving up the standings and securing home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Can they get there? Sure they can.
Right now, the Boston Bruins only sit five points ahead of the Leafs, and the Montreal Canadiens are only six points in front of the Buds—thanks to the Leafs' 5-1 clobbering of the "Bleu, Blanc et Rouge" in Toronto on Saturday night.
To make a push for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference (or even the second seed, although passing two teams would be a much tougher task), Toronto has to go on a major run to end the season and shore up parts of its game.
Let's take a look at what the Leafs can do in their final seven games to fight their way up the Eastern Conference table and clinch at least one series in front of their home crowd.
Improve Their Possession Game
I know that everyone is talking about the Maple Leafs and their penchant for giving away the puck.
But it is a major problem for this team and one of its few flaws.
Before you immediately scroll down to the comments section and explain why the lack of possession or shots on goal deficit isn't the end of the world, hear me out.
I'm well aware that the Leafs currently employ a "don't worry about shots, just don't give up quality chances" mentality. And yes, it's been working. I have no problem giving credit to Randy Carlyle for successfully implementing this strategy and getting his team (especially his defensive core) to buy into his system.
Yet this kind of mindset is sure to come back to haunt the team at some point.
As the season wears on and the playoffs approach, not worrying about puck possession becomes more risky.
Once the playoffs arrive, the combination of fatigue and stiffer competition could lead to more breakdowns and more opportunities for the opposition.
While the old adage states "don't fix what ain't broke," I think this may be the exception to the rule. Toronto should try and address its less-than-stellar possession game before it comes back to bite them.
Beat the Montreal Canadiens in Their Season Finale
This one should be fairly obvious.
With the Leafs currently sitting just six points behind the Habs after the aforementioned drubbing on Saturday night, Toronto could theoretically pull to within four points just by winning the final head-to-head contest between the two teams.
Since the Leafs have already won three of the four meetings between the hated rivals this season (by a combined score of 15-7 no less), it is conceivable that Toronto could hand Montreal another defeat on April 27.
Considering it is also the final game of the season for the two teams as well, it may ultimately decide whether Toronto can catapult into one of the coveted top-four playoff spots.
A loss would most likely end any hopes of the team playing its opening-round series at the Air Canada Centre.
Get Help From Other Eastern Conference Teams
Seeing as the Leafs are behind both the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, they do not control their own destiny in being able to clinch a top-four seed in the East.
The team will not only need to win five or six of their seven remaining games, but they'll also need Montreal or Boston (or preferably both) to lose a few more games between now and the end of the 2013 regular season.
Assuming nothing were to change in terms of regulation and overtime wins (and given the Leafs' inability to win games via the shootout, it's unlikely anything will change), the Leafs hold the tiebreaker over both of their Original Six rivals. They would have more regulation and overtime wins than the Bruins and the same amount as the Habs, and they would have more points in head-to-head play against the Canadiens.
So now that we've determined the Leafs should only require a tie to move past Boston or Montreal, how much help would the Leafs need to pass either team?
Assuming the Leafs finish with a 5-1-1 record (11 points), they would need the Bruins to pick up just six points or less the rest of the way (which would be a record of 3-4-0 or worse), while the Habs would need to amass just five points or less (or a record of 2-4-1).
Those types of records aren't likely to happen, but anything is possible.
Realistically, the Leafs would probably have to win all seven of their remaining contests to have an outside shot at a top-four seed, but with Boston's shaky play of late and another head-to-head match against Montreal, it is most certainly a possibility.
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