There’s been a lot of optimism for Leaf fans recently. Since James Reimer’s first start on January 1, 2011, Toronto has a 16-8-5 record going into their game against Chicago on Saturday. That’s a .638 point percentage, a far cry from their play earlier in the season. It’s brought them to 10th in the conference and within 4 points of the playoffs. For a city that hasn’t seen playoff action since before the lockout, it’s difficult not to imagine what might be. In recent years, the Leafs have gone on a tear in the second half of the season only to come up short of a playoff berth. It’s very tempting to think that maybe this year, given that they started this run earlier than in previous years, maybe this year…
Unfortunately for those fans, there’s 5 reasons why this young team will likely once again miss the tourney for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
As stated, the Leafs have been playing well over .600 hockey. In fact, February’s 8-2-4 is even better than January’s 6-6-1. With 67 points as of the morning of March 5, they sat 1 back of Buffalo, 4 back of Carolina in 8th. Conventional wisdom says that 90 points is necessary to have a legitimate chance at the playoffs. With 17 games remaining, it means the Leafs would have to take 23 of those 34 points, or .676 hockey, to have any chance at that 8 spot. Not impossible, but a difficult task to be sure. It shows just how badly the 8-15-3 November-December record hurts. And 90 points is still no guarantee of a playoff.
2. The Leafs’ Schedule
The Leafs have a somewhat difficult schedule remaining, beginning with a Saturday date against the defending Cup Champs, Chicago. They have only 5 games against teams below themselves in the standings. The rest include Buffalo (2), Boston (2), Philadelphia, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Carolina. Now, some excitement comes from the fact that Toronto has recently beaten some of these teams. But, traditionally, the Leafs struggle against these opponents. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Toronto is 3-10-3 against Buffalo. The records against Boston (5-8-3), Tampa (3-5-3), Carolina (3-6-2) and Philly (4-7-0) are not much better. History isn’t everything, but it suggests it’s going to be tough getting those 23 needed points. Note also that the Leafs play 7 games in 12 nights from March 8-19, and have a tough 3-game stretch from March 26-31 against Detroit, Buffalo and Boston. Not what you’d call an easy schedule.
3. The Opponents‘ Schedule
The Leafs are chasing the Sabres, Hurricanes and Rangers, needing to pass at least 2 of those teams. The Sabres have 19 games remaining, although the schedule is not easy and includes 6 back-to-back situations. They have 9 home games, and play 6 opponents below them in the standings. The Hurricanes have 16 remaining games, 10 at home, and 9 are against opponents below them. The Rangers have 15 games, 8 at home and 7 are against teams below them. Part of Toronto’s problem is that Buffalo plays Carolina twice, and the Rangers once. The Leafs will have to hope that, depending on the day’s standings, the ‘correct’ team wins (and they avoid any 3-point games). Certainly these teams need to take care of their own business, but the Leafs are going to need teams like Ottawa, New Jersey and the Islanders to play spoiler.
Really? Hasn’t James Reimer been the strength of this team? Well, yes… but… It’s true that Reimer has been nothing short of fantastic, and a major reason Toronto has been winning recently. But, 22 NHL appearances is a small sample when talking about how a goalie may perform during a playoff run. And it should be noted that while he is still playing very well, Reimer has shown some weaknesses, including a recent tendency to get beaten up high. On February 3, Reimer had a 1.96 GAA and a save percentage of .940. Those numbers have crept up to a 2.28 GAA and a .929 percentage. And while that’s still very good, but the bigger question is do the Leafs intend to have Reimer start the remaining 17 games? JS Giguere is currently backing him up, but Giggy’s groin appears it may still be a problem. Jonas Gustavsson played well with the Marlies, but he has not been in an NHL game in almost 2 months. Things could get dicey if James Reimer falters down the stretch.
5. Special Teams
Compared to previous years, the Toronto special teams may be improved. But they still sit 25th in powerplay and 26th on the penalty kill. That’s been the case all year, but the fact remains that without effective specialty teams, it is much more difficult to excel. Especially if you need to win about 12 of the next 17 games. The Leafs won their last contest against Philadelphia 3-2. It has to be a concern though that they were 0-7 on the powerplay. Though Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda are trying, it’s unlikely a powerplay that was 25th with Tomas Kaberle is going to improve now without him. The PK is improved lately. But, without the special teams being much better, it’s going to be tough to win games.
Fans of the Maple Leafs should indeed by buoyed by their team’s recent successes. After the dismal downturn and bottoming out at 29th place, to be challenging for the playoffs this late in the season is a positive to be built upon. That said, realists will see that making the playoffs this year is probably just out of the team’s reach. Patience is required, bit if the last 2 months are any indication, it seems could be rewarded soon enough.