Before you get on me for being a typical Leafs fan, jumping on the playoff bandwagon after a few wins, believe me – I’m not. Despite Toronto winning 4 of their last 5, there’s still always a very good chance that another 8-game slump is around the corner. I get it. The Leafs are world-class dashers of hope. But, that never stops Leaf Nation from throwing their hearts into the team, and while I’m not as seasoned as some of the oldest of Leaf fans, I’ve had my heart crushed a few times by this damn team.
That said, it appears that the All-Star Break was perfectly timed for the Leafs, who limped into the break with a 1-5-1 record in their last 7 games. Last year, going into the Olympic break in February, the Buds went 2-7-2 in their last 11, and then proceeded to 13-10-3 over the already-meaningless last third of the season.
There’s a couple of reasons that the Leafs are not entirely out of the playoff picture at this point, although the 3-point system will make it very difficult to make up the 8 points they currently need to catch the 8th place Hurricanes.
We all know how the Leafs love to play well at the end of the season, winning games when it doesn’t matter. Sure, they are usually the team that contenders will opt to throw in a backup keeper against in order to keep their stars better rested. If that trend should continue, the Leafs should be expected to at least put up a decent record over the last 28 games of the season, if only for tradition’s sake.
A big reason the Leafs should have hope is Phil Kessel. Yes, I know his goal drought continues, but the controversy this weekend was put to bed neatly, with Kessel expressing his desire to remain in Toronto long-term. He made a great play to get Nik Kulemin the puck last night for an assist, and the Leafs are now 10-0-0 when the sniper records a positive +/- rating. He seems to playing with a bit more jump in his step, at least over the last two games, and his hustle down the ice to beat out an icing call against the Thrashers in the final minute was something Leaf fans wish they could have seen more often. The fact of the matter is that he will eventually score again, and when he does, he has a history of scoring in at least a few more games after that. If he can go on a bit of a scoring run over the next few weeks, the Leafs’ chances will drastically improve.
For once, it looks as if the schedule actually favors the Leafs at this point in the season. The rest of February will be an interesting one, to say the least. Here’s the Buds’ schedule over the rest of the month: vs. NJ, @MTL, @BOS, @BUF, vs. OTT, vs. NYI, @MTL, vs. PIT, @ ATL. The games against Montreal and Boston would have to qualify as toss-ups, since the Leafs always seem to play their two rivals close. Ottawa is struggling mightily, as are the Devils and Islanders, while the Buds have managed to beat the Thrashers in their last two meetings. That leaves another trip to the HSBC Center in Buffalo and a home game against Pittsburgh, who is already without Evgeny Malkin and could still be without Sidney Crosby. No reason the Leafs can’t win at least 5 or 6 of their next 9 games.
Of course, that still leaves a hellish schedule in March, which, while it has historically (at least since the lockout) seen the Leafs play some of their best hockey in early spring, will be a tough month by any team’s standards. FSeven games against teams currently in the playoff picture, including Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Throw in Chicago, Buffalo, Colorado and Minnesota and you have a tough month all-around.
For the Buds to have any shot at even sniffing the playoffs this year, they have to come out strong for the next few weeks, and at least finish February the way they’ve started it. James Reimer continues to impress, and I think it’s safe to say he and Jiggy will get the majority of the starts, at least for now.
So do I think the Leafs have a realistic shot at the playoffs? The eternal optimistic Leaf fan in me wants to say yes, but it’s a far-fetched proposition, to say the least. While it’s definitely a reach at this point, I’d be happy to see them finish above .500 and at least challenge for a playoff spot, hopefully denying the Bruins yet another lottery pick. Who knows with this team?