What the Toronto Maple Leafs Need to Get into the Playoffs

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistApril 8, 2014

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 3:  Head coach Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs talks to Dion Phaneuf #3 during a break in action against the Boston Bruins during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre April 3, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

In the 1997 movie The Edge, the character played by Anthony Hopkins relates something he once read about people who die in the wilderness.

The book he quotes claims that people die of shame, recounting what they did wrong and dwelling on it to such a point that it prevents them from doing the necessary thinking to ensure their survival.

Watching the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes dying over the last few weeks, it’s a thought that’s come to mind for me a few times.

The Leafs have nobody to blame but themselves for their current predicament. Less than a month ago, the team sat in third place in the Eastern Conference, behind only Boston and Pittsburgh.

Having just completed a difficult three games in California with wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles, Toronto was sitting pretty.

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 29:The Detroit Red Wings celebrate goal of the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre march 29, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Then the losing started.

An epic eight-game run of regulation losses came at the worst possible time, as the Leafs handed points out to the teams trying to catch them. Two games against Detroit during this stretch were the most criticalthe four points the Red Wings gained on the Maple Leafs in those contests are the difference between the two teams in the Eastern standings.

Now Toronto needs to find some way to turn the page. It’s true that the Leafs have gone 2-1 in the three games since, but two incredibly narrow victories and a rout at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets don’t represent a full recovery.

Somehow, the Leafs need to win the three games left on their schedule.

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 1: Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his goal with teammates Victor Hedman #77, Valtteri Filppula #51, and Steven Stamkos #91 during the second period against the Montreal Canadiens at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on A
Scott Audette/Getty Images

It starts on Tuesday against a Tampa Bay team that has a shot at claiming home ice in the first round if it finishes strongly. On Thursday, Toronto draws the woeful Panthers. Finally, on Saturday, hated provincial rival Ottawa won’t be looking to do the Leafs any favours.

It isn’t a murderers’ row of opponents, but all three games come on the road and the Leafs need to collect all six available points to finish with a full-season total of 90.

Even that might not be enough.

As it stands, the three playoff teams that Toronto can still mathematically catch all have the tiebreaker (regulation/overtime wins), and so the Leafs will also need one of those clubs to finish with fewer than 90 points.

Here’s what that would look like:

  • The Philadelphia Flyers would need to go 0-4-0 in road games against the Panthers, Lightning, Penguins and a home game against Carolina. Given the schedule and the margin for error, this is exceedingly unlikely.
  • The Red Wings need to go 0-4-0 or 0-3-1 in a home game against Carolina and road games against Buffalo, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. There are some tough games in there, but if Detroit can beat one of the Sabres/Hurricanes, it will be safe from Toronto.
  • The Blue Jackets need to take fewer than three points from a set of four games: a home contest against Phoenix and three road tilts against Dallas, Tampa Bay and Florida. A win and an overtime loss, or three overtime losses, would move them clear.

Even if one of those scenarios happens and the Leafs win all their games, Toronto could still be unseated if the New Jersey Devils collect six points in games against the Senators, Islanders and Bruins. New Jersey is currently tied with Toronto, but has five more regulation/overtime wins.

In all likelihood, the Leafs’ thin playoff hopes were dashed with a terrible performance on Saturday, at home, against a mediocre Winnipeg team.

All of the scenarios above require an unlikely collapse from a competitor fighting for its playoff life.

The other thing all the scenarios require is for the Leafs to suddenly halt a streak of inept play, shut out the self-recriminations over where they are now and simply find a way to concentrate on winning hockey games.

Based on what we’ve seen over the last four weeks, that’s a tall order.