Race to the Playoffs: Leafs Down to the Wire

This is a stressful time to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

All the ups and downs that this team has gone through in the last decade has culminated in this season when the Leafs wiped the slate clean. In their centennial year, they’ve introduced a crop of rookies that have set the stage for the next era of Leafs hockey. Those rookies have broken decade- and half-century old records. The team mended old wounds, like reconciling with Dave Keon, as they’ve looked to the future of the franchise.

But with the Leafs being absent from the playoffs since 2012-13 it means that change is measured on success. Expectations may have been low to start the season, but that’s no longer the case. We know that the team is good. We know that the team can beat any team in the league (they’ve beaten all three of the Metropolitan Division giants at least once). The Leafs have shown that they are a playoff worthy team.

And yet their playoff hopes come down to the last two games.

Embarrassed by the Lightning

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Nikita Zaitsev played a big role shadowing Marchand for most of the night. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning was a chance for the Leafs to clinch a playoff spot and dash Tampa’s postseason hopes. It was a game that had a playoff atmosphere. A do-or-die game. A chance to see the Leafs return to the playoffs.

What an embarrassment that game was.

Tampa Bay came into the game playing with a playoff mindset and, to their credit, the Leafs matched their pace. After the first period, it was tied at zero. It was anyone’s game. A series of goals mid-way through the second period gave Tampa a 2-1 lead. It was a close game and the Leafs have made comebacks before.

A third period devoid of energy and urgency sealed the game for the Leafs. A final score of 4-1 and Tampa Bay is now closer to pushing the Leafs out of the playoffs.

That third period was a terrible display by a team that claims they want to make the playoffs. Losses like that are unacceptable at this point in the season. This wasn’t an honest loss where they tried their best but were beaten by a better team. No, this was a bad loss. The kind of loss that is the result of a lack of effort when it counts.

It may sound like an overreaction, but if the Leafs miss the playoffs then it will be because of this game.

Scoreboard Watching and the Final Stretch

Every spot in the playoffs has been clinched except the last Eastern Conference Wildcard spot. That final spot has come down to three teams: the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay and the Leafs.

The Islanders and Tampa Bay are in a must-win situation. To even have a chance at making the playoffs they need to win their last two games. This would put them at 94 points and into the playoffs, assuming the Leafs don’t win a single game or get an overtime point. If there is a tie in points then it comes down to a tiebreaker.

The Tiebreaker

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The first tiebreaker is decided by regulation and overtime wins (ROW), this doesn’t include shootout wins. With two games left for each team, it puts the Leafs at 38 ROW, Islanders at 37 ROW and 36 ROW for Tampa Bay. This means that there are two scenarios for the Islanders to get into the postseason.

The first is that they win both games and get 94 points while the Leafs lose their last two games and stay at 93 points. The second way is through the tiebreaker. If the Islanders win and also lose a game in overtime, then it puts them at 93 points and 38 ROW.

With points and ROW tied the tiebreaker goes to the team with the most points earned in games between the two teams. So, in that case, the Islanders would get in as they came away with four points in the three games against the Leafs and the Leafs only had three points.

For Tampa Bay to make the playoffs they must win both games and the Leafs can’t win either of their last two games. There can be a tie if the Leafs lose in overtime and get a point, which puts them at 94 points. Then Tampa Bay must win both of their games. This would tie both teams in points (94) and ROW (38). So then it comes down to points earned in games between the two. Tampa Bay would win with five points, in the four games against the Leafs, compared to the Leafs’ 4 points.

The Final Two Games

The Leafs’ season comes down to the final two games of their schedule. All of the battling teams have two games left and the problem is that the Leafs have the hardest matchup.

The Leafs face two of the best teams in the NHL in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets. If that wasn’t enough it’s also a back-to-back series, which the Leafs have struggled with all season. It’s possible that the Leafs lose those two games. The only positive thing for the Leafs is that Columbus has struggled recently and have lost four in a row.

Whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs will be decided by Sunday night. The Leafs have two games left to prove that they deserve to make the playoffs. Their fate is in their hands.