It's one thing to sprint out of the gate with a hot start; but it's something entirely different to sustain success over a grueling 82-game NHL schedule.
For the first time in the 2011-12 regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs face the prospect of being on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
That's not to say that there aren't or haven't been legitimate reasons to celebrate so far.
This version of the Maple Leafs have clearly improved in many areas. Their power play ranks second in the league; they have the top offensive duo in the NHL in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul; and their transition game and overall speed has been greatly improved over previous years.
But at the end of the day—or season, in this case—if all of those positives don't equate to a spot in the postseason, it is ultimately still a failure for the entire organization.
This Toronto team now has their work cut out for them, as they must overcome several obstacles that stand between them and a playoff berth. Before they can work on solutions to help them right their wrongs, they need to clearly identify the problems behind their recently lack of success.
Here are 10 of the biggest barriers the Maple Leafs must overcome if they want to see playoff action in 2012.
It was bound to happen eventually, and now that we have seen the full effects of the injury bug in Toronto, it's safe to say that not everything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have endured the absence of several key players right from day one of the 2011-12 regular season.
As of Dec. 21st, 2011 all of these players have had the displeasure being missing in action at some point this season:
- Mikhail Grabovski (5 games)
- Tim Connolly (12 games)
- Mike Komisarek (13 games, expected to miss at least two months)
- Matthew Lombardi (14 games, expected to miss at least three weeks)
- Mike Brown (15 games, out indefinitely)
- James Reimer (18 games)
- Colby Armstrong (24 games)
This has created some holes in the Maple Leafs' lineup that have had to be filled by spirited up-and-comers from their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
For the most part, they have performed admirably; but this doesn't mean the Leafs haven't had to endure some growing pains with their young guns in the lineup.
With injuries taking their toll, it makes for a bit of an uphill battle to establish consistency and chemistry of any kind.
Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," and apparently opponents of the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken that message to heart.
The Maple Leafs rank 21st in the league based on their shots-against average, at 31 per game.
There's nothing wrong with keeping a goaltender busy—in some cases it's actually advantageous to keep him from getting stale. But usually where there's smoke, there's fire; and with all of those shots peppering James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson, there will most almost certainly be more goals against.
The Leafs are currently 25th in the league when looking at their goals-against-per-game average, which maybe is the symptom of multiple ailments.
Is it poor defensive zone coverage, missed assignments in their own end or just plain sloppiness that leads to poor clearing attempts and turnovers?
Although they are among the top 10 in the league with a five-on-five goals for:against ratio of 1.02, they're still struggling to keep the puck out of their own net. They will have to address most of these fundamental concerns before advancing to the postseason.
Even when everything else is clicking for the Toronto Maple Leafs offensively, the domino effect of allowing so many shots and goals against has lead to having more goals against than goals for.
The history of what it means to have negative goal differential by seasons end isn't very encouraging for those who want to see the Blue and White in the postseason.
Last year, only teams with a positive goal differential made the playoffs—in fact, over the past six NHL season since the lockout, there have only been eight teams with a negative differential that actually made it through.
The Maple Leafs currently sit 20th in the league at minus-6. If they want to give themselves a fighting chance at making the playoffs in 2012, this stat will have to improve. Furthermore, the teams that have historically made it to the Stanley Cup Finals have led the NHL or have at least been in the top two or three in this category.
The Leafs have come a long way over the last few seasons, but this statistic illustrates just how much further they need to go before being considered legitimate contenders.
One of the things the Toronto Maple Leafs have to start avoiding is getting behind early in the game.
Part of this shortcoming might be due to a lack of defensive discipline or not having the right motivation when gearing up before game time.
Whatever the reasons behind the Maple Leafs slow starts, they could save themselves a lot of grief by coming out of the gate strong and playing a full 60-minute game. Not surprisingly, the Leafs haven't done well when they're trying to play catch-up—they only win 37.5 percent of the games when they give up the first goal.
That's still fairly high when comparing the stats against those other NHL teams; however, it doesn't forgive the fact that when they get behind early they aren't likely to recover.
Scoring first would be a simple way to resolve some of the already aformentioned issues.
Putting together three solid periods a game would turn a Maple Leafs team on the playoff bubble into the kind of hockey club that not only loves to win but does it consistently.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been blessed thus far into the 2011-12 season with the No. 1 offensive paring in the NHL.
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul shattered expectations and have been a true force for the Leafs. Unfortunately, this success hasn't transferred over to all other players—in particular, Nikolai Kulemin.
Kulemin was a huge component of one of the most offensively productive lines in the NHL during the 2010-11 season, along with teammates Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur.
As of Dec. 19th, 2011, Kulemin has only registered three goals.
To put this into perspective, in the first 33 games last year, he already had 11.
That fact that this line has been unable to rekindle the same kind of success they've enjoyed in the past has been a stumbling block for the Leafs on their long road to improvement.
Having at least two lines firing consistently would give the Maple Leafs that added bit of offensive security and would take some of the pressure off Toronto's top line.
Playoff teams find a way to grab those extra points over the course of the season that make the difference in the end.
In a home game on Dec. 19th, 2011 versus the Los Angeles Kings, James Reimer had them in striking distance of a win. When your goaltender can limit the opposition to only two goals, you always have that chance.
Unfortunately for the Toronto Maple Leafs, their offense couldn't adequately reward Reimer's stellar performance.
Yes, they did get a point—but it should have been two.
Another hurdle the Maple Leafs have faced thus far is their inability to turn some of their regulation losses into points in overtime.
To make matters worse, they have only won two of their last 10 home games. These are missed opportunities to bank points they'll never see again.
The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to have fallen off the wagon with respect to their abilities to constantly draw penalties rather than take them.
A perfect example of a senseless penalty is the one taken by Dion Phaneuf on Dec. 16th, 2011 late in the second period and down 3-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.
Phaneuf received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for a hit from behind on Zack Kassian. Not only was the hit an undisicplined play by Toronto's captain, but it removed a key component of their roster for the remainder of the game—one they went on to lose 5-4 in regulation.
These kinds of seemingly tiny miscues could snowball and end up haunting the Maple Leafs in the long run.
As fans or otherwise, let's not be mislead to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs' penalty kill is anything but the absolute worst in the National Hockey League.
In case you haven't noticed just how bad it is, here are a few of their recent high...err, lowlights:
- They surrendered three power-play goals versus the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 16th
- Gave up another four on six attempts versus the Washington Capitals on Dec. 9th
- Have allowed 12 power-play goals against in the last 10 games
The success rate of the Leafs penalty kill—or lack thereof—is dead last overall at 73.4 percent as of Dec. 20th, 2011.
How it became so horribly rotten is perhaps a question to ask coach Ron Wilson.
Weren't the Leafs supposed to have one of the premier defensive corps in the NHL? A penalty kill this bad certainly would suggest otherwise.
Without a major overhaul in this department, they are seriously jeopardizing the likelihood of being a playoff-ready team by the end of the 2011-12 regular season.
Even if the Toronto Maple Leafs close out the season strong to muscle out the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, in all likelihood the defending Stanley Cup Champions will take the division.
This eliminates the possibility for the Leafs to leapfrog over any teams in the East into a top three-spot.
With only two more games to be played against the Boston Bruins during the rest of the 2011-12 season, perhaps the damage has already been done. The Bruins have served the Leafs four regulation losses already.
With such a strong divisional team poised to continue their winning ways, they are a barrier the Leafs may not be able to contend with. They can only hope the Bruins also dominate their other divisional and Eastern Conference rivals to limit the points available to these other teams down the stretch.
Because of a very tight race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, there's a bit of a logjam of sorts on the back end of the top eight.
As of Dec. 21th, 2011, only four points separate the sixth and 12th place teams in the East. Within this very tight group are teams that are underachieving and overachieving, making the playoff picture at this point still very cloudy and little surreal.
The Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres are all teams that were projected to do well but have struggled thus far.
On the other end, the Florida Panthers have surprised many this year and are now occupying a spot that would have otherwise been held by a more perennial contender.
The bottom line is that by the end of the 2011-12 season, the Maple Leafs will need to have manufactured a better record than at least seven of the other 14 Eastern Conference teams.
If the team returns to their winning ways and are able to string together some consecutive wins, securing a spot in the playoffs is still entirely feasible and well within reach.
By the same token, however, if they continue to slide in the wrong direction they may end up finding themselves eaten up by the competition.