This is it. The final stretch of games that will decide who makes the playoffs. It feels strange for the Toronto Maple Leafs to still be in the playoff race this late in the season. We’ve become used to the Leafs imploding and falling in the standings in January or even as early as December.
But this Leafs team has been different. Although they did falter in February, only getting 14 of a possible 28 points, they’ve managed to stay within reach of the playoffs. And now thanks to a three game win streak the Leafs are sitting in the last wildcard spot. So how do the last 15 games look for the Leafs and do they have a chance of beating the competition and making the playoffs?
Leafs Down the Stretch
The end of the season becomes a race for the playoffs that is always a close finish. The Leafs are precariously sitting in the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with 76 points. Both the New York Islanders and the Tampa Bay Lightning are right behind the Leafs in the standings with 75 points each. The Boston Bruins can also be included in this race, despite being in the third Atlantic spot with 80 points.
The playoff race in the east is between these four teams battling for two spots. The Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators have both gone on timely win streaks to help distance themselves from the rest of the Atlantic Division teams. This leaves Boston as the only team within reach of both the Leafs and Lightning. Given how strong the Metropolitan Division has been this season, only the second wildcard spot is open.
To finish the season in either the third Atlantic spot or the last wildcard spot will most likely mean winning 10 of their 15 games. Why 10 specifically? Over the last few seasons, specifically for the Eastern Conference, the lowest point total to make the playoffs has ranged from 93 points up to 98 points. So if the Leafs can get 10 wins it will put them at 96 points and in a good position to make the playoffs.
So with that in mind, what does their schedule look like?
Eight of their final 15 games are against teams within the Atlantic. Most importantly, they have two games against Tampa Bay and one against Boston. Of all the games, those three are the most important to win if the Leafs want to make the playoffs as it takes points away from two of the Leafs’ competitors.
April will be a tough month for the Leafs. They have six games with two sets of back-to-back games and a game against the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Leafs will need to take full advantage of the rest of March before heading into their tough final games.
The Leafs can’t afford to falter at this stage of the season because of how good their competition has been recently. Boston is also on a three game win streak as well as going 7-3-0 in their last 10. Tampa Bay has done the same with a three game win streak and going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.
The Islanders have lost their last two games, but have been one of the best teams in the NHL since firing their coach. They had a disappointing start to their season and looked like they would miss the playoffs by a wide margin, but on Jan. 17 the Islanders fired head coach Jack Capuano and Doug Weight took over coaching duties.
Since then, the Islanders are tied for fourth most points in the NHL with 33 points in 26 games. For comparison the Leafs are 14th in the NHL in points since Jan. 17 with 28 points in 26 games. With the way Boston, Tampa Bay and the Islanders have played, a few consecutive wins won’t be enough for the Leafs to distance themselves from the pack.
Leafs Playoff Picture
So, if the Leafs manage to make the playoffs what can we expect? Who are they likely to play in the first round?
Most likely first round:
NYR at MTL
BOS at OTT
TOR at PIT
CBJ at WSH
STL at MIN
NSH at CHI
EDM at SJ
CGY at ANA
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) March 13, 2017
We know that the only two spots open for the Leafs are the third Atlantic spot and the last wildcard spot. If the Leafs finish in the third Atlantic spot then they will play the second place Atlantic team. That would mean the Leafs would play either Ottawa or Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.
Now if the Leafs end up in the last wildcard spot then it will mean playing the top finishing Eastern Conference team. This would mean the Leafs would play either Washington, Columbus or Pittsburgh depending on who comes out on top. So the best case scenario for the Leafs is to finish in the third Atlantic spot to avoid playing one of the Metropolitan teams.
You can follow the match up changes daily on NHL.com.