Remember the parade that Toronto had planned after the Leafs came out of the gate 4-0-1? Well it may now be time to re-hire the planning team and get the celebrations mapped out.
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Will Dion Phaneuf be hoisting the Stanley Cup come early June? Probably not, actually make that a definitely not. But will the Leafs be able to squeak into the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed? Weirder things have happened; let’s put it that way.
If the Leafs are to push their way into the playoffs, here’s how it’s going to happen.
After the departure of Beauchemin and Kaberle, Jean-Sebastian Giguere is the only player on the roster over the age of 30. Yes, that makes Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong the senior citizens of the team at 28 years old.
Now I can’t say that I’ve been in the Leafs’ dressing room lately, but I can only imagine the atmosphere in that room. In fact, I can’t think of a dressing room I’d rather be in, (Aside from Vancouver and Philly of course, being in first place always creates a nice team dynamic.) While the Red Wings after practice discussions probably involve diapers, the Leafs are just a bunch of kids excited to play hockey. If Ron Wilson can harness the energy that these kids bring to the table and use it in a positive way, the Leafs could end the season on quite a roll.
And if the team needs a little more motivation to finish the season on a high note... Have you heard that Phil Kessel was traded for a couple of first-round picks? Yeah, so have the Leafs. And I’m pretty sure they don’t want to give Boston another second overall pick. I rest my case.
This guy screams playoff hockey. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at his nose. (Or his shiner).
Some people called Brian Burke crazy for signing Armstrong to a three-year, $9 million contract, but I think he’s worth every penny. Steve Ott and Dave Bolland are each earning $2.95 million and $3.375 million respectively, and I’d say that they’re quite comparable to Armstrong. If you really want to talk about bad contracts, Nashville is taking a cap hit of $4.5 million on both David Legwand and Martin Erat. And meanwhile, over on the Island, Alexei Yashin is still their highest paid player with a cap hit of $4.755 million. Yeah, I think I’ll stick with Armstrong.
Regardless of whether he’s overpaid or underpaid, you can’t help but love the way Armstrong plays hockey. He mucks it up in the corners; he takes the body; he blocks shots on the penalty kill; he can score goals, and he’s a great team player. If Armstrong can stay healthy, (after all he’s missed a third of the season due to injury) he will have a huge impact on the Leafs’ run to the playoffs.
If it weren’t for the play of Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur, the Leafs would certainly be sharing the cellar with Ottawa and Edmonton in an all-Canadian battle for the basement. Instead, the Leafs have a shot at the playoffs, and their top line is the main reason why. Just how good has this line been for the Leafs? Well, in 60 games the line has combined for 63 goals, tallying for 41.4 percent of the Leafs’ total goals. So to answer my earlier question: Just how clutch have they been? Pretty clutch.
Okay, lighting the lamp 63 times and scoring 41.4 percent of a team’s goals seems like a pretty good accomplishment, right? But how does it compare around the league? The “Sedins plus Burrows” line in Vancouver, which many consider to be one of the top lines in hockey, have combined for 64 goals this year (31.4 percent total). Thornton, Heatley and Marleau have combined for 57 goals (33.3 percent total). And what about Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin? Sixty goals for 36.4 percent of the Capitals’ total goals. Now I’m not suggesting that the Leafs are going to be able to trade Grabovski and MacArthur for Ovechkin and Backstrom straight up. All I’m saying is that the Leafs’ top line has been much better than expected.
If the Leafs are going to make the playoffs then the top line needs to continue their scoring ways and light the lamp on a consistent basis. They’ve been doing it all year and there’s no sign of them slowing down. Talk about good news for Leafs’ fans.
Here’s the stat of the year for you right here. Ready? The Leafs have gone all year without a powerplay goal from any of their defensemen. Yes, this includes Kaberle and Beauchemin. If you were to tell me at the beginning of the year that the Leafs’ defense wouldn’t have a powerplay goal 60 games into the year, and they would still be in the playoff race, I wouldn’t believe it.
But the one thing that the Leafs’ defensive core has done better lately, is playing defense. And defense wins championships, right?
Luke Schenn has been a monster for the Leafs so far, posting a plus-three rating. Not bad for a guy playing for a team with a minus 28 goal differential. As for Phaneuf, while he hasn’t brought the offensive numbers over from Calgary, he hasn’t been a defensive burden like he was at the beginning of the season. Over the past few games he’s logged some serious minutes and has played good physical hockey.
But what about the departure of Kaberle and Beauchemin? Two youngsters, Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson, have been able to fill the void quite nicely and have played some solid minutes. If the Leafs’ defense continues the strong defensive play that they’ve been displaying as of late, the likelihood of playoff hockey in Toronto increases dramatically.
With two teams above the Leafs in the playoff race, Toronto is going to need a little help from their friends. Said friends being the Thrashers, Sabres, Hurricanes and Rangers; said help being a prolonged losing streak. In the past 10 games, three of the four teams have been anything but spectacular. Atlanta (2-7-1), Carolina (3-4-3), and the Rangers (3-6-1) all find themselves on the wrong side of .500 in their last 10, going into the final stretch.
The road ahead doesn’t get any easier for Carolina, either, having eight back-to-back games, compared to the Leafs’ four. The hardest schedule goes to Buffalo with only six of their remaining 23 games against non-playoff teams. And to make matters worse, they have seven back-to-back games to deal with. The easiest schedule belongs to Atlanta with only three back-to-back games, but with three matchups against the conference leading Flyers, and the current state of the team; nothing is going to come easy.
The Leafs need to hope that the struggles for each of these teams continue; when the teams do play each other, the Leafs just have to hope that it gets settled in regulation.
If you can think of a streakier player in the NHL, please let me know, because I can’t think of one. Seven goals in his first eight games, followed by another seven in his next 29 games, then five goals in the next four, and then he went scoreless for 14. Oh Phil…When he’s hot, look out; when he’s not, he’s about as useful as Mike Tyson in a spelling bee.
In order for the Leafs to have success, Kessel needs to be the player that Brian Burke thought he was going to be when he traded for him. I mean, it’s great that Grabovski is having a fantastic year, but he shouldn’t be leading the Leafs in goals. Kessel was brought to Toronto to score and that’s what he needs to do on a more consistent basis.
But, the good news for Leafs’ fans is that Kessel seems to be starting up another hot streak, and he’s found chemistry with Bozak and Lupul. If Kessel can stay relatively hot for the remainder of the year, then the only thing you should be thinking about is where to take him in your playoff pool.
This kid is the real deal. Or at least he’s been for the 14 games that he’s started for the Leafs. Don’t believe me? Check out his numbers: He’s posted a record of 9-4-2 with a goals against average of 2.12 and a save percentage of .934, not to mention two shutouts. He’s second in the league, behind Tim Thomas, in save percentage and third in GAA, behind Thomas and Jonathon Quick. Not bad for a 22-year-old kid taken 99th overall.
The Leafs are a young team, and with a young team comes mistakes. Mistakes lead to scoring opportunities, which leads to a goalie’s nightmare. In fact, Reimer has faced 30 or more shots in 10 of his 14 starts. But he’s handled himself well, and with Giguere as a backup, he will only get better.
The bottom line is that the Leafs will get outplayed in a number of games down the stretch. My guess is close to half, but that’s when they need Reimer to steal a game or two for them. This kid is glowing with confidence right now and I don’t see a reason why Toronto can’t hop on his back and ride him right into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. (Yeah, it’s actually been that long.)