The Maple Leafs have slipped back into a tie for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as they head into action this week. After a strong start this may be viewed as a bit of a disappointment. But, most preseason polls predicted that Toronto would be dogfight for the final rung in the post-season competition.
Sure there have been some positive signs with the improved play of leaders like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf leading the way, but some question marks, like a last place penalty-kill unit and some shaky goaltending from the tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson.
So, which is it then? Is the Leafs glass half empty or is it half full?
The upcoming schedule certainly will provide a chance to put the club’s best foot forward.
This week the Leafs will begin by playing two home games before embarking on a four game road trip that features stops in Long Island, Florida, Carolina and Winnipeg, hardly a minefield of the league’s toughest opponents. Of those teams, only Florida has a better record than the Leafs, but many believe that the Panthers are playing way over their heads.
After that the Leafs are back home for a ten game stretch where they play nine home games and their lone road game will be a short bus ride to Buffalo.
It’s at this point, that Toronto will have to dial up results like those achieved in their season-opening five game homestand when they went 4-0-1.
To that end, the Leafs are finally going to reshuffle their offensive lines to look like they were intended at the beginning of the season. Tim Connolly has shown a real comfort level with his playmaking ability and will be given a chance to play between two of the league’s top scoring wingers in Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The second line will once again revert to last year’s most consistent troika of Mikhail Grabovski between Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke Mac Arthur, a trio of forwards who have not played together much because of injury troubles and some roster shuffling that was caused by other injuries among the forwards. These units will have to accept the pressure of leading the offense and there is no reason why they can’t come through.
This is a team that will have few excuses to fall back on if they stumble in the next month.
A successful winning record over these games may not be enough to catapult this team into the post-season. They have to be dominant now because they will be faced with tougher sledding in the latter part of the slate.