It’s a well-documented fact that the Leafs will almost certainly need to win out over their remaining four games to have a chance at making the postseason tournament. Including tonight’s Battle of Ontario with the Senators, it will be no easy task for the Buds to stay perfect with Washington, New Jersey and the hated Canadiens still on the schedule. Still, if they were to pull it off, they will need some help to reach the 8th and final spot in the playoffs. How much help? Well, that’s what we’re going to answer right now.
Of the teams still hoping to clinch a playoff berth, only Toronto, Carolina, Buffalo, Montreal and the New York Rangers have any realistic chance of doing so. Atlanta and New Jersey are still mathematically alive, but their chances are even worse than the Leafs, with both clubs needing to win out and have either Buffalo or New York lose all of their games. With 90 points being the most that the Leafs could garner this season, we’ll look at what it would take for each of the teams ahead of them to remain within striking distance.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs are the safest of all the remaining playoff hopefuls, needing just one point to put them out of reach of the Leafs. With four games remaining, the Canadiens hold 89 points, and 31 regulation-or-overtime wins. For Toronto to catch Montreal, the Habs would have to lose all of their games in regulation. Thankfully, 3 of their last 4 contests are on the road, where they are a very pedestrian 18-19-1, as they will travel to New Jersey tonight, Ottawa next week and Toronto next Saturday. Their only home game will be an Original Six matchup with the defending Cup champs from Chicago, also on the playoff brink out west. It’s not likely, but it is a possibility that Montreal could go winless. They’ve won just once in the last two weeks, defeating Atlanta, 3-1. Aside from that game, they’ve been shutout three times in a row, and hammered 6-2 by Carolina. If by some miracle it were to come down to a do-or-die game in Toronto next Saturday, that would be a game for the ages.
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres haven’t been able to beat the Leafs lately, but they’ve been damn near perfect against everyone else since the start of March, compiling a 10-4-2 record and piling up 22 points. Their only losses in that stretch were to Toronto (twice), Carolina (twice – once in OT), Pittsburgh and Nashville (in OT). With five games left, the Sabres can be out of the Leafs’ reach at 91 points. If the clubs tie at 90, assuming Buffalo had at least one more regulation-overtime win, Toronto would actually hold the next tiebreaker with points gained in head-to-head, since the Leafs went 3-2-1 against the Sabres this season.
Buffalo’s schedule is far from easy at this point, with road games in Washington and Carolina coming up, followed by a homestand against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Their final game will be on the road as well, as they travel to face the Columbus Blue Jackets next weekend. Thankfully, Dion Phaneuf’s clapper to the collarbone of Ryan Miller seems to have shaken up the defending Vezina Trophy winner, and he’s been listed as day-to-day ever since. Backup Jhonas Enroth is a capable keeper however, and Buffalo’s defense-first mentality will do them good in Miller’s absence.
New York Rangers: After last year’s epic collapse saw them miss the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, the Rangers are in danger of repeating their mistakes again, as they squandered more than a few opportunities to secure themselves a playoff bid in recent weeks, most notably in a game against Buffalo on Wednesday night. The Rangers followed that effort with a sloppy 6-2 loss to the Islanders on Thursday, and will have the night off tonight as they gear up for a matinee with the Flyers on Sunday. After traveling to Philly, the Rangers will be home for their last three games, hosting the Bruins, Thrashers and rival Devils to close the season.
The Rangers are currently tied with the Sabres at 87 points, and after winning 7 of 8, they’ve lost 3 of their last 4. Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t had a day off since February 7th, and the Rangers could be the team the Leafs have the best chance of catching.
Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes could be the team that breaks the Leafs’ hearts, as they continue to hang tough in the race, and hold a game in hand on Toronto, Montreal and New York. A huge game tomorrow against the Sabres lies in the wings, but they’ll have to focus on their matchup with the Islanders tonight first. After this weekend, they host the Red Wings on Wednesday, before a back-to-back with the Thrashers and Lightning next weekend.
The Canes have lost just twice in the last two weeks (once to the Leafs), but if there’s one thing to hope for, it’s that goalie Cam Ward might end up tiring. He’s already started a career high 69 games, and has started all but 3 of the Canes’ games in 2011. With Carolina needing all the wins they can get, he’ll likely start most of the rest as well, although the back-to-backs could be trouble for Carolina.