The Toronto Maple Leafs dug themselves quite a whole during the first half of the season but are quickly digging themselves out of it. With just 16 games left to play, is it actually possible that they can make the playoffs?
The Maple Leafs currently sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, just five points back of the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Something has pleased Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson and president and general manager Brian Burke the most is that the team’s success has been spread across the lineup. Whether it has been point production, leadership, good consistency or something else, each and every player on the Leafs’ roster has made a great contribution to Toronto’s recent run of success.
However, just because the Leafs have been playing extremely well ever since the All-Star break doesn’t mean that you can consider them as a lock for the playoffs. In fact, it is still very unlikely that they will make the playoffs now that the Buffalo Sabres have two games in hand on Toronto. That’s not to say that the Buds won’t make the playoffs, though.
Here are the top four things that must continue for the Leafs if they are going to make the playoffs:
James Reimer, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf
James Reimer’s outstanding play, combined with the recent hot streak of Phil Kessel and the drastically improved Dion Phaneuf has helped propel the Buds from the laughing-stock of the league to a serious contender─at least when it comes to a playoff spot.
Reimer has officially been named the Leafs’ starting goalie for the rest of the season unless he gets injured or begins to falter. In 22 games this season, Reimer has a record of 12-5-3, a save percentage of .924 and a goals against average of 2.45. Those stats are surprising to say the least, since the man so many fans call “Optimus Reim” was originally called up over Jussi Rynnas so Rynnas could get more starts with the Marlies.
His timely saves and above-average play has been key to the Leafs’ second half success.
For years now, Phil Kessel has been thought of as one of the most streaky players in the National Hockey League and rightfully so. The 23-year-old went on a 14 game goalless streak from January 13th to February 12th, but now finds himself with four goals and nine points in his last six games.
The last thing the Leafs need right now is for Kessel─the only pure sniper on the team─to go on another cold streak with just 16 games remaining.
Like Kessel, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf has drastically improved his play as of late.
Since going 36 games with just one goal, Phaneuf has tallied three goals and eight points in his last 14 games for a total of four goals and 16 assists in 50 games this season.
He was the man who setup Mikhail Grabovski’s overtime game winning goal on Wednesday night against the Penguins. His recent offensive production and defensive play has been huge to Toronto’s success.
Hustle and heart
Throughout the entire season, players such as Clarke MacArthur, Tim Brent and Mike Brown have been great when it comes to both hustle and heart. All three have possessed a “never give up” mentality all season that has rubbed off on some other teammates, even ones that have spent a good portion of this season in the minors.
Those players I speak of are Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill.
Boyce and Crabb have both been coming up with timely goals ever since they were called up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies earlier in the season. Despite combining for just six goals in 63 games, the two youngsters have both played large roles in the Leafs’ playoff push.
Rosehill, like most tough guys do, has always been willing to throw his body around and/or drop the gloves when his team appears to be down. His fights and hits have helped spark the Leafs to come back victories this season, and we all know that coming back is crucial to making the playoffs.
The entire team must continue to hustle to every loose puck and play with a great amount of heart.s
Over their last six games, the Maple Leafs have managed to score 21 times; that’s an average of 3.50 goals per game. With a goalie that has a GAA well below 2.70 and a save percentage well above .910, it’s easy to win when your team is scoring that often.
In order to make the playoffs, the Leafs don’t want every win to be a tough one. If you’re only scoring 2.50 goals per game, winning is very difficult, and making the playoffs is even harder.
As mentioned before, Leafs sniper Phil Kessel has been on a recent tear that he must keep up. This is not to say that he is the only one on the team who can score, but he is the best at it. With no real play maker, he, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and every other player on the Leafs’ roster must continue driving to the net to keep up this frantic goal scoring pace.
Saturday night’s 5-3 loss to Chicago was the first real big loss the Leafs have suffered since quite some time. In fact, the Leafs hadn’t lost by more than one goal since February 12th, when they lost 3-0 to the Montreal Canadiens. That very same game was also the last time the Leafs failed to collect at least one point.
That all may sound disappointing to a Leafs fan, but the reality is that the Leafs are not going to win every game from here on out. With that being said, they are going to have nights were they struggle to keep the puck out of their own net.
The Maple Leafs cannot allow the loss to Chicago to get to them. If it does, they are going to be slow, flat-footed and unable to score. Instead, they must take the positives out of the game and continue to build on them. In this case, it’s that the Leafs were able to keep their goal scoring up by notching three goals. They also came away with 33 shots, which is eight more than Chicago’s 25.
Take the positives and forget about the negatives and the Leafs should be better off on Tuesday night against an Islander team that sits in a tie for 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Don’t take this as me saying the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs, but that they still have a chance.
Follow me on Twitter @LukasHardonk for more Maple Leafs coverage, including news, rumours, updates and opinion.
Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.