The first two months of the 2009-2010 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs have certainly been interesting; and each has been completely different. September was a disaster. November wasn't so bad.
And if the Leafs plan on going anywhere this year, there has got to be a noticeable improvement in December.
The Leafs had a dismal record of 1-7-4 in September, and looked as if they had played their way out of a playoff spot just 12 games into the season. Things took a turn for the better in November though, and they went a respectable 5-5-4 through 14 games.
December started off on a positive note in Montreal on Tuesday when they simply shut down the Canadiens offensive players, but it must continue. The team has not shown much in the way of consistency yet, making a habit of following up a solid win with a terrible effort, but they have won three of their last four and have looked much better at every position.
Currently sitting in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, the situation, at first glance, looks bleak for the Leafs, but sitting only seven points out of a playoff spot is actually not that bad.
The team has 15 games remaining in December, after winning their first against Montreal, but the schedule is by no means an easy one. Eleven of those games are against teams that are currently sitting in a playoff position. They play four games against division leaders (Buffalo twice, Washington, and Pittsburgh) and have eight of the games at home; where they own a record of 2-7-3.
Six of the games are against division rivals, including one against both the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
And they'll finish it off with a date against the Oilers in Edmonton, the team's first matchup against former coach, Pat Quinn.
It is clearly a month that will make or break the Leafs.
Sure, another month of .500 hockey would keep them with a glimmer of hope to get an invite to the postseason dance, but if we’re to be realistic about the situation, it has to happen now.
It has to be December.
Those infamous one point games will not get it done.
As confidence grows in Leaf land, so does the expectation to make something of this season. There have been plenty of bright spots lately, with the excellent play of Phil Kessel and Niklas Hagman up front, and the improvement of all the men on the blue line.
Jonas Gustavsson—though handed a scare with a trip to the hospital in Montreal following an accelerated heartbeat—has been doing his job well enough to propel the team to wins.
The struggles seem to be subsiding, the consistency is beginning to become the norm, and the Leafs look as if they are poised to claw their way out of the NHL's basement and back into playoff contention.
But if this tough December schedule proves to be too much for a team just finding its stride, it may be lights out on a season that had people excited in Toronto. New players, new GM, and a new attitude could end up being not enough to end the team’s playoff drought.
The Leafs may not have another month as important as December this season if they cannot come out of it in good shape.
Will it be a Merry Christmas in Toronto, or will this month prove to be the Grinch?
It's now up to them to decide which way they go.