With a 10-2-4 record since the All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs have gradually climbed the NHL standings to the point that the Blue and White now have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs.
When I look back at my own preseason predictions, the Maple Leafs are exactly where I thought they would be at this point in the season (around 20th overall and within striking distance of a playoff spot).
For the Leafs Nation, the majority of the 2010-11 season has been marred by letdowns. But an infusion of youth, a capable goaltender and a little luck now have fans, players and management singing a different tune.
Gone are the calls for head coach Ron Wilson to be fired and, if I didn’t know any better, it appears as if the media and fans have stopped calling for general manager Brian Burke’s head for trading away two first-round picks and a second-round pick in return for the suddenly "do no wrong" Phil Kessel.
Winning is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it is never easy. The Maple Leafs are no exception to this rule. The Buds' recent success has been contingent on a number of good fortunes, including inspired play from captain Dion Phaneuf, the addition of Keith Aulie to the lineup and the continued efforts from Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.
To be fair (as is the case with most winning teams) Toronto’s recent success has been a total team effort, right down to the fourth line, which has been very solid of late.
Through 65 games, the Maple Leafs currently sit with a 29-27-9 record, good enough for 67 points. That puts the Leafs one point behind the Buffalo Sabres (who have two games in hand on the Maple Leafs) and three points behind the New York Rangers (who have played 66 games thus far).
A quick look at the Maple Leafs’ schedule sees the Buds play the Buffalo Sabres on March 12 and 29. Both games will be played in the confines of the Air Canada Centre.
There are no games remaining between the New York Rangers and Maple Leafs. For the record, the Maple Leafs went 0-2 against the Rangers in regulation, with their only win against New York coming in overtime.
Against the Sabres, the Maple Leafs have a 1-3-1 record. It is well documented that the Maple Leafs have had more than their fair share of struggles against the Sabres, but if the Blue and White can somehow find a way to pull off a couple of victories in their two remaining games against Buffalo, their playoff picture will be a lot brighter.
If the Maple Leafs should falter, the Buds will likely finish outside of the playoffs, which is where most of us had Toronto finishing anyway.
At this point, every game is as important as the next, and in today’s NHL there are rarely any easy nights.
Of the Maple Leafs' 17 remaining games, the Blue and White will play Buffalo and the Boston Bruins twice. The Buds will also play a number of tough games against the Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens (all of whom currently sit in the top eight of their respective conferences).
The only teams the Maple Leafs will play that are currently on the outside looking in at a playoff spot are the Sabres (twice), Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche and the white-hot New Jersey Devils, who have been all but unbeatable since head coach Jacques Lemaire took over the reins.
The fact that there are so many teams in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference right now (there is only a four-point differential between seventh and 10th place) leaves little room for error.
Lose three in a row, and your team is out of the playoff race. On the other side of the ledger, if the Buds can remain hot, say a record of 12-4-1 down the stretch, then they have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
In my mind that is the kind of hockey the Maple Leafs will have to play to make it into the playoffs (essentially the same as the current pace the Maple Leafs are on). Should they earn 25 points in their remaining 17 games, that would leave them with a total of 90 points, which is probably where the Leafs need to finish if they want to be in the playoffs this season.
So, can the Maple Leafs keep up their torrid pace?
If so, they are as good as into the playoffs. If not, all is not lost. The Maple Leafs have not looked this good in many years, and I cannot remember a time when the players, coaching staff and management have looked so relaxed and in-sync with each other.
The odds are still stacked against the Maple Leafs making the playoffs, but one thing is for sure: it will be a lot of fun watching how this season shakes out, which is all many of us expected from this team at the beginning of the season.
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Until next time,