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A Week in the Life of the Maple Leafs: Four Huge Games in Five Nights

TORONTO - SEPTEMBER 22:  Mike Komisarek #8 and Tomas Kaberle #15 of the Toronto Maple Leafs watch from the bench during a pre-season  NHL game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Centre on September 22, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada .  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images
Jon NeelyAnalyst IJanuary 5, 2010

It's time to get down to business for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If it wasn't imperative to win games before New Years, it certainly is now with a playoff spot slipping away by the day.

On the final night of 2009, the Leafs were five points out of eighth place.

On the night of Jan. 4, 2010, they are eight points out and slipping fast. And it may be slightly premature to say this, but I'm going to anyways: the Leafs' next four games could be the difference between playoffs or not.

That's right, the Leafs have four games in five nights starting Tuesday, and if things don't go well, the playoffs could be too far out of reach come Saturday night.

Toronto starts this crucial four-game stretch at home against the Florida Panthers, the team directly ahead of them in the standings by four points.

The Panthers are 5-4-1 in their last ten games but have allowed 135 goals (the third-most goals in the Eastern Conference), which are just 10 less than the Leafs have given up.

Playing in their own building against a team dead ahead of them in the standings that is struggling to keep the puck out of their net should be a recipe for success for the Leafst —but that's only step one in their important quartet of games.

The very next night has the Leafs in Philadelphia to face the Flyers, a team that, you guessed it, is also dead ahead of them in the standings.

The Flyers are tied with the Panthers with 41 points and stand in the way of the Leafs and where they want to be.

Two games in two nights, both winnable, and both with extreme importance to their season.

But that's only half the battle, as they'll head straight to Buffalo after one day off before playing the Sabres, a team that they rarely beat, especially on Friday nights in Western New York.

There may be no more frustrating thing to watch for Leaf fans than a lackluster performance in Buffalo, something they seem to end up watching with every trip down the QEW.

And at this point in the season, for the sake of their season and the sanity of Leaf Nation, they cannot afford to lose to their division rivals for a 10th straight time.

If this wasn't enough for the Leafs to handle in one week, there is one final test on Saturday night as Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins come to town—the fourth game in five nights. 

A brutal stretch in the schedule, but one that if they take advantage of, could put them right back in the thick of things for the playoffs.

But if they lose most or all of those games, it could seriously land a crushing blow to their season. Losing to two teams right ahead of them, a division opponent and a struggling Stanley Cup contender would be a disaster.

So here we are, Leaf Nation, a long, hard-fought season that could all come down to one week of back-to-back, back-to-backs.

Of course, it's a long season. There will still be 36 games remaining after this four game sandwich, and frankly anything can happen in that time.

But currently sitting eight points out, which would surely increase with a bad week, is a near impossible hill to climb with so many teams to pass.

If there was ever a week you should pay close attention to a team, it's this one for the Leafs.

If all goes well, the beat goes on.

But if this week turns into a Toronto train-wreck, an old saying might just apply to the Leafs and their playoff chances.

Lights out, flood the rink.

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