NHL Predictions: 15 Reasons Why the Toronto Maple Leafs Are a Playoff Team

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IMarch 2, 2011

TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 26: Colby Armstrong #9 and Dion Phaneuf #3  of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Colby Armstrong goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during game action at the Air Canada Centre February 26, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

These are good times to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

It may not be as good as a Charlie Sheen party, but the fact that the club is on an unlikely and impressive playoff run has the city buzzing about everything Leafs. 

Heading into the All-Star break things looked bleak for the blue and white. They entered the break on a 1-5-1 run that had everyone convinced the season was lost. Even the team was talking like they had blown it.

But since that break the Leafs have lost just two games in regulation. 

Two games. You'd be pegged as insane if you suggested a month ago that the club would lose just two games in regulation in February (8-2-4). But it happened, right before our eyes, and a team that once was 14 points out of eighth, now sits six away with 19 games remaining. 

They have 63 points through 63 games, in a season that's probably going to take somewhere between 86-90 points to get into the dance. If that's the case, the Leafs realistically can go no less than 12-7-0 (which would get them to 87 points) the rest of the way, but it will likely take a better run than that.

Tough, sure, but considering the run they've been on the past month; not impossible. 

There is reason for excitement in Hog town as it's been a while since there was an important game in March in these parts, and though the schedule ahead is a tough one, the games actually matter.

Right now, this club seems to be on a mission. There's just something about the way they're playing that makes playoff hockey in Toronto seem not only possible, but that they could hang with the big boys when the real season starts. 

We're not talking about a Stanley Cup contender, but mentioning the Leafs is no longer followed by laughter. This is a team on a roll.  

Here's 15 reasons why the Leafs are a playoff team.


15. Beating teams they're not supposed to.

That's right. If there's one thing a team out of the race has to do to get back into it, it's beat the teams ahead of them. Beat the teams they're not supposed to. 

The Leafs have been doing a lot of that lately, but none more impressive than their back-to-back wins in Boston and Buffalo. Two places the Leafs just don't win. 

On Feb. 15 the Leafs rolled into Boston, a place they had lost six straight games. The Bruins led the season series 2-0-1, and Phil Kessel once again had a chance to face his old team-a team he hadn't scored against in the ten previous meetings. 

He scored, twice, and finally quieted a crowd that had been booing him since the day he left, as they won 4-3.

The very next night the Leafs found themselves in Buffalo, where they had lost their last seven games. Buffalo was 29-9-1 against the Leafs since 2005-06 heading into the game, and even though the crowd is always almost a 50/50 split of Leafs and Sabres fans, it usually ends poorly for the Buds. 

They won there too, squeaking out a 2-1 decision.

Two teams that they never beat on back-to-back nights would normally be a disaster for the Leafs, but not this time. Two closely contested wins, showing that this streak is no fluke. 


14. Home ice has been nice.

It hasn't been the nicest place to play for the Leafs over the past couple of years, but this season games at the Air Canada Center have gone the home team's way a lot more. It's actually turning into somewhat of a difficult place to play for opponents. 

The Leafs are 14-11-7 at home, with nine of their remaining 19 games played in Toronto. 

It's been a friendly place to play as of late especially, as the club has only lost one home game in regulation since Jan. 6. That's a 6-1-4 record in their past 11 at the ACC. 

And they haven't lost back-to-back games there since the end of December. 

Winning the majority of their home games from here on out is crucial to their playoff hopes. And the fact that they've been so good there over the past two months, makes a postseason position all the more plausible. 


13. Three healthy goalies

It may sound strange, but the fact that the Leafs are currently rolling with three goalies might actually help them in the long run. Sure, one guy is going to have to a lot of sitting around (or in the Leafs' case, two guys), but injuries are a huge factor for every team-late in the season, even more so. 

The team was given a scare when rookie sensation James Reimer left the game with apparent whiplash on Sunday night. He's been cleared to play on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the fact that he's not immortal-nor are the other two, clearly-makes having two NHL-ready goalies behind him a good thing. 

Jonas Gustavsson has struggled mightily this season, but after undergoing his third heart procedure, he played well in his conditioning stint with the Marlies, and is back up with the Leafs awaiting his turn once again. 

J.S. Giguere, on the other hand, has dealt with a reoccurring groin injury all season, but is also healthy now and capable of taking a team deep into the playoffs-something he's done more than once in his career. 

Three healthy net minders might seem a little awkward, and means one guy sits in the press box every night, but if injuries come up between now and the end of the season, they're one team that won't need to scramble to find someone to fill the crease. 


12. Luke Schenn.

Luke Schenn leads all defensemen in hits with 198, and is sixth overall in the NHL. He's tenth in blocked shots with 135. He has become the Leafs stud on the blue line, and is becoming one of the more reliable stay-at-home defensemen in the league. 

He averages 22:36 of ice time per game, and plays on the power play, penalty kill, and big minutes late in the game. 

His gradual improvement over the season has produced a beast for the opponents to deal with. And as he continues to get better, the Leafs have some serious stability in Schenn along the road to the playoffs. 


11. Big goals late.

Keeping leads has never been the Leafs strong point, but if there's one spot in their game this season that has been a success, it's third period goals. They are 12th in the NHL when it comes to goals scored in the final period with 60. 

It has been there best period all season, and especially so as of late. They've scored 54 goals in the second period, and just 45 in the first. 

This isn't to suggest that they've been picture perfect in said period this season, allowing 62 goals against in the final frame (63 in the first, 59 in the second), but it helps when they can keep pace. 

Hanging around in games, even ones they have no business being in, is key for the club. And if they can score late in games, to both tie games and pull away, it goes a long way in ensuring wins.

And that, as you're well aware, is the most important thing right now. 


10. Supporting cast.

The most underrated aspect of playoff teams is the 'other guys' on the team that don't get all the glory. These are the guys that play the clutch penalty kill minutes, and fill the third and fourth-line roles. 

They may not make the highlight reel every night (or any night), but their importance cannot be overlooked.

It's these guys that have been huge for the Leafs lately. Players like Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Mike Brown, Joey Crabb, Fredrick Sjostrom, and Darryl Boyce may be absent on the score sheet most nights, but they have a major impact on the team's success. 

Armstrong and Brent have been especially useful in both penalty killing and grinding it out in the dirty areas of the ice. It's their tough, hard-working shifts that boost the rest of the club-and the crowd-and have been invaluable in the past two months. 


9. No more trades.

The Leafs can no longer be pegged as buyers, sellers, or anything in between. All they are now, is players. 

Players on a team that, from now on, will look the same until the end of the season. It was uncertain who would stay, and who would go leading up to the trade deadline, and you can imagine how that would effect the mindset of the team. 

But now, with the deadline in the past, everyone can just focus on getting the job done. 

Yes, it's the same for every team in the league, but there aren't many other teams that were in the Leafs position-as in, chance of trading anyone on the roster, while still in the playoff hunt. 

This is the roster that will either make or miss the playoffs this season. No more changes, no more questions, no more rumours. 

Just play, baby. 


8. Winning close games.

Six of the Leafs eight wins in February were by one goal. That's huge for this club, because in games where one goals means so much, it's important to know that they can both get a lead, and then hold it. 

Mind you, they did lose four games last month by one goal, but all of them were in overtime or a shootout, meaning they at least got a valuable point. 

Or lost a valuable point, depending on how you look at it. 

The final quarter of the season is all about who can win the close games, and thus far, the Leafs have shown they can do that. The hard part is continuing to do so. 


7. An improved Dion Phaneuf.

To be frank, the captain of the Leafs hasn't been very good this season-especially early on. But after dealing with a serious leg injury, and slowly making his way back from that, it seems like the defensive rock that Dion Phaneuf once was is starting to return. 

He was often a liability in his own end, as well as snake-bitten offensively, which combined to make him more of a problem than a solution for the club. 

He still has the shooting accuracy of an armless fighter pilot, but he's much more confident in his own zone, more of a threat physically, and logging big time minutes for the team-especially with the departures of Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin. 

He is the vocal leader of the club, there is no doubt in that, but if he's to be a real contributor to the Leafs, he's got to do his talking on the ice with his play. 

An improved Phaneuf only makes things easier. 


6. Struggling teams around them.

The toughest part about making a late-season playoff run is catching and passing the teams ahead of you. Relying on those teams to lose while you win is completely out of your control, and three-point games can be the devil. 

But for the Leafs this season, the teams ahead of them have done almost nothing but lose over the past month and a half, which had a major role in how they've gained on the pack. 

The Leafs have jumped the Florida Panthers and the Atlanta Thrashers, and have just the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes in their way. 

Florida is 3-6-1 in their past ten games. Atlanta, who just a month ago looked to be locked into a playoff spot, is a pedestrian 2-6-2 over their last ten. 

Carolina is 4-4-2, while Buffalo is has the only winning record in the previous ten games, at 5-3-2.

It also probably helps that the Sabres began a seven-game road trip on Tuesday night, the longest in franchise history. 

But thinking all four teams would continue to struggle until the season's end would be crazy-even if the Panthers shipped out their entire time at the deadline-but it has certainly helped them close the gap. 

Now it's all about finishing strong. 


5. MacArthur, Grabovski, Kulemin trio.

They've been one of the most consistent lines in the NHL all season, and if the Leafs are going to make these final 19 games mean something, they're going to have to keep it up. 

Clarke MacArthur, he of the new contract talks, has been the most surprising player for the club this season-he's leading the team in points with 48-and is a huge reason for their late-season surge.

His almost instant chemistry with line mates Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski has made the line dangerous every nights, without exception. 

All three are having career years, on pace to shatter previous bests, and have become the Leafs official number one line. 

If they keep scoring, while still maintaining their great defensive play, the offense continues to click.

And a consistent offense is a major part of a playoff team. 


4. The addition of Joffrey Lupul.

Before he came, the Leafs had trouble getting traffic in front of the opposition's net. Since Joffrey Lupul has been in the blue and white, there's been nothing but traffic for goalies to deal with. 

He has two goals and five points in nine games as a Leaf, but it's not his points that are his most important asset to this club. His physical presence on that line is something they haven't had since Kessel showed up. 

And Lupul's addition has freed up space for Kessel to make more plays. The Leafs sniper has seven goals and 12 points in the nine games playing with his newest teammate. 


3. Phil Kessel's resurgence.

When he's not on his game, he can be invisible on the ice. When he's on his game, there is no more important player for the Leafs than Phil Kessel. 

He can take over a game single-handedly, and for the past seven games he's been doing a whole lot of that. So much so, in fact, that he was named the NHL's first star of the week. He had four goals and eight points in last week's four games, and has seven goals and 11 points in the past seven games. 

He has been the exact player GM Brian Burke thought he got when he traded for him two years. 

He's tallied 26 goals and 47 points this season, and he'll need to be well over the 30-goal mark if he plans on playing more than 82 games in 2010-11. 

If Kessel continues to be hot, and avoids sinking back into his slump-like ways, this club is dangerous up front-on more than just one line. 


2. James Reimer

It's not a secret anymore. James Reimer is the real deal between the pipes for the Leafs. He's played just 18 games in his limited NHL career, but is an impressive 10-4-3 in that time. 

His stats are almost unbelievable, with a .929 SV%, 2.31 GAA, and two shutouts. 

He is 6-1-3 since the All-Star break, and has been the number one reason the Leafs have been much improved as of late. Goaltending has been an issue for years in Toronto, and there hasn't been a guy in the crease who's looked as calm and composed as Reimer since Ed Belfour roamed these parts. 

He reads the play and controls rebounds like a goalie well beyond his years, and it's obvious that the team plays better in front of him. And when your team has confidence in you, that's when you know you're doing something right. 

He's just a rookie, and putting the weight of a city on a 22-year-old's shoulders is a risk, but right now that risk is paying off. 

And Reimer continuing his out-of-this-world play is clearly the most important factor in this march to the postseason. 


1. Why not?

Really, why not? 

Why can't the Toronto Maple Leafs make the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

They're not supposed to be there, no one expects them to be there. Two months ago it looked as if it was a guarantee they wouldn't be there, and now, with just over a month to go in the season, they're close. 

And close means there's a chance. And a chance is all they need. 

It's a long shot to be sure, but they've been one of the hottest teams in the NHL for not just a few games, but a month. It's not a three-game improvement, it's a full on, team-wide, where-were-these-guys-before type feeling. 

There's still a ways to go before we'll find out how this all shapes out, but the fact the the club is playing important games heading into March is a nice change from years prior. 

The playoffs are looming, and the Leafs are still in the conversation. 

Yes, these are good times to be a Leafs fan indeed. 


    Wednesday’s FTB: Quick Leafs links and more

    Toronto Maple Leafs logo
    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Wednesday’s FTB: Quick Leafs links and more

    Pension Plan Puppets
    via Pension Plan Puppets

    Game #73 Review: Tampa Bay Lighting 4 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs 3

    Toronto Maple Leafs logo
    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Game #73 Review: Tampa Bay Lighting 4 vs. Toronto Maple Leafs 3

    Alec Brownscombe
    via Maple Leafs Hotstove

    Blackhawks Eliminated from Playoffs for 1st Time in 10 Years

    NHL logo

    Blackhawks Eliminated from Playoffs for 1st Time in 10 Years

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Toronto Maple Leafs blow three-goal lead, lose 4-3 to Tampa Bay Lightning

    Toronto Maple Leafs logo
    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Toronto Maple Leafs blow three-goal lead, lose 4-3 to Tampa Bay Lightning

    Pension Plan Puppets
    via Pension Plan Puppets