Toronto Maple Leafs: Predicting Where They Will Finish in the Eastern Conference

Jeff LangridgeCorrespondent IIISeptember 30, 2011

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 19:The Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Carl Gunnarsson goal against the Ottawa Senators during preseason NHL action at the Air Canada Centre September 19, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Yesterday, I wrote an article detailing on how I think the Toronto Maple Leafs will finish in the Northeast Division. Today, I will expand on that and predict on how the Leafs will finish in the Eastern Conference.

The Eastern Conference has always been viewed as weaker than the Western Conference, and that still might be the case. However, a lot of teams in the Eastern Conference vastly improved themselves over the offseason, and it will be tougher for some teams to make the playoffs.

That being said, the Maple Leafs are going to be in a dogfight for the last few playoff spots in the East. I predicted that the Leafs will finish third in the Northeast Division yesterday, and they will be battling with other third-place teams to nab what will most likely be the seventh and eighth spots.

The Southeast Division has had a pretty good run and has been pushing the Atlantic Division for the strongest division in the East. Boasting three teams—the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes—that could do some damage. Washington has entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the East for two straight seasons, and with the improvements they have made, they should lock up that spot once again. Tampa Bay will give them a big fight, though.

The Atlantic is a little more open than it has been in past few years. The Pittsburgh Penguins sit atop the division, even without Sidney Crosby. The New York Rangers got the big fish in free agency in Brad Richards, and they could make a move up the Atlantic standings. The Philadelphia Flyers took a gamble by trading away their two leading scorers last season, and it could be a long year in Philly if the gamble doesn’t pay off. The New York Islanders are on the rise and the New Jersey Devils are a team that could either finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings or push for a playoff spot.

So, as I see it, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins will be at the top of their respective divisions and own the first three spots in the Eastern playoffs. After that, it is going to be a crap-shoot, as every other team will be aiming to get into the playoffs, with each having as good a shot.

Toronto will need to get off to a strong start as that has been the Leafs' Achilles heel the past few seasons. With Toronto having the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference from the All-Star break on last season, if the Leafs can have a consistently good October and November, they might have a stronger chance at making the playoffs.

Here are my projected final standings for the Eastern Conference.

1. Washington Capitals

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

3. Boston Bruins

4. Tampa Bay Lightning

5. Buffalo Sabres

6. New York Rangers

7. Philadelphia Flyers

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

9. Montreal Canadiens

10. Carolina Hurricanes

11. New York Islanders

12. New Jersey Devils

13. Winnipeg Jets

14. Florida Panthers

15. Ottawa Senators

There you have it. I think the Leafs will make the playoffs, but just barely. It could even come down to the Leafs’ final game against Montreal on April 7. Getting over Montreal and Carolina will be tough, but I think that the Leafs have what it takes to do it. If James Reimer is the answer in goal, and he hopefully will be, the Leafs now have the defense and a good enough offence to get the job done.

Who knows? With Washington’s history of choking in the playoffs, the Leafs might even make it into the second round, and after that, who knows what could happen.