While the first day of December usually brings about thoughts of the holiday season that will be in full effect over the next 25 days or so, it's a little different for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their thoughts are on the regular season and how if they don't step up their game over the next 25 days or so, they'll be on their summer holiday earlier than they wanted in 2010-11.
It's a sad but true fact; if the Leafs do not improve their play and their record by beginning of the New Year, it may be too late for the team so salvage what's left of the regular season. In many people's minds, the season has barely started, and yet this month could prove to be the end for a team so desperately needing a playoff berth.
But it also could also be a huge step forward for the club.
Which is why December is a huge month for the Leafs, no matter how you look at it.
As they walked off the ice on Tuesday night, the final night of November, after suffering yet another loss (this time in overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning), the team's record was at 8-11-4 after 23 games. Sure, it doesn't look all that bad, but the 20 points they have are just one more than the 19 they had after 23 games last season.
This month the Leafs play 13 games (lucky, or unlucky?), seven at home and six on the road. Eight of those games are against teams currently in a playoff position, while three are against teams that sit below the Leafs in the standings as of Dec. 1.
The month starts off with a two game home stand with Edmonton coming to town on Thursday and Boston on Saturday, but then they go on an incredibly tough four-game stretch where they play the top four teams in the Eastern Conference; Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montreal.
Four games, six nights, against teams with a combined 63-28-9 record. Ouch.
And it doesn't get any easier after that, as the club heads out on their annual Western Canadian swing, where they will visit Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in a five-day span.
They then come home to play three of the final four games of the month at home (Atlanta, at New Jersey, Carolina, Columbus).
Clearly it's not going to be an easy month-if there is such a thing for the Leafs-but if they can capitalize on beating the teams below them (which is a must) and winning some games against those teams ahead of them (which, in all honesty, is also a must) then they could see themselves rise in the standings.
They have to beat teams above them to make moves upwards, and they'll get the perfect opportunity to do so, multiple times.
Getting to play seven of the games at home is certainly beneficial to the club, as they've been good at home (6-4-3) this season. It's those road games, where the team has been dismal (2-7-1) that could be the killer for them.
The key will of course be beating the teams below them in the standings; those are must-win games if there ever was such a thing. They get Edmonton twice and New Jersey once. They cannot lose those games.
I repeat: They cannot lose those games.
The goal will obviously be to have a winning record in the month, and to do so they're going to have to beat teams far superior to them, and do it on the road too. Anything less than seven wins this month, and they may fall too far out of the playoff race to make it up later in the season.
They currently sit six points out of eighth, with four teams between them and the eighth-place Boston Bruins.
The Leafs will benefit by getting back Colby Armstrong, Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere before the end of the month, and if they can go relatively injury-free they will improve with three of their most effective players back in the lineup.
Goal scoring must improve while the play in net must continue to be at the level that keeps the Leafs in games, like it has been so far.
There's just no way to get around it; December could be the make-or-break month for the Toronto Maple Leafs, either they pull themselves back into the playoff race, and live to have another important 30-day stretch, or they fall further back into the basement of the league, and watch as the playoffs slip away for yet another season.
While December is a month of gift-giving and spreading cheer, the only thing the Leafs will be worried about is stealing points and closing the gap between them and the playoff teams.
It might not be very merry for the club just yet, but if they manage to have success this month, fans could have reason to spread cheer on a blue and white Christmas.
Or watch as their team gets the equivalent of a lump of coal in their stocking.
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