The Olympic break really couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto was on a torrid pace in its past 14 games prior to the break, going 11-2-1 and climbing to fourth place in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic division in the process.
With the 2014 Sochi Olympics now over and participating players Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk and Nikolai Kulemin back with the team, the Leafs will be looking to pick up where they left off as their schedule resumes on February 27 with a game against the New York Islanders.
It only gets tougher for the Leafs from here on out as they look to qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season and avenge their shocking Game 7 loss against the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs last season.
The team has 22 games remaining on its schedule, with 13 of those 22 games coming on the road.
With an overall record of 32-22-6 (70 points), the Leafs should be aiming to win at least half of those remaining games considering that 92 points was the minimum to qualify for the playoffs in the last full NHL season in 2012.
While that may not seem like such a difficult task considering the team’s strong play recently, the bad news is that Toronto will play those games over just 45 days. This will be a very hectic pace and might lead to fatigue down the stretch.
It doesn’t help that 14 of the games will be against teams currently in the mix for the playoffs.
The good news is that the Leafs will finally have a healthy roster for the first time this season with the return of centre Dave Bolland this week.
Bolland, who missed more than three months with a severed ankle tendon, was quickly emerging as one of the team’s most reliable players before his injury. His return should provide the team with a huge boost, especially with its weakness at the centre position.
With the trade deadline approaching on March 5, the Leafs aren’t expected to be serious buyers considering that the team is already close to the salary cap and will see its wiggle room further decrease once Bolland’s salary counts against the cap upon his return.
So, it seems that Toronto will be relying on its current crop of players to finish the regular season on a strong note.
Led by their first line of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, which had 58 points in the 15 games before the Olympics, offense shouldn’t be a problem for the Leafs going forward considering that the team is second in the Eastern Conference in goals scored.
Toronto has also gotten superb goaltending from Jonathan Bernier, who has taken over the starter’s role by putting up a superb 92.7 percent save percentage.
The one area of concern for the team is its defense. The Leafs allow a league-worst 36.3 shots against per game and own the worst shot differential per game as well at -8.5. The penalty kill has also been a weakness this season, ranking 28 in the league at 78 percent.
The team’s decent record, despite the lopsided shot differential and shots against per game numbers, only further reflects the impact Bernier’s strong goaltending has had. But it’s dangerous to rely completely on a goaltender to face so many shots per game, especially as the quality of the competition increases.
There's no doubt tightening up the team’s defensive game will be the main priority for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle going forward. Defensemen who make mistakes and don’t buy into Carlyle’s system may find themselves with less ice time as the games become more important.
Regardless of what happens and who they face, the Leafs will need to stay consistent and focused during this final stretch of the season, which promises to be a grind.
All stats are from sportingcharts.com
Want to talk sports? Follow me on twitter @WahajArshad