It’s been a long time since the Toronto Maple Leafs found them in the thick of a battle for one of the few final playoff spots open after the All-Star break, but they have managed to stay in the running thus far. While that seems all fine and dandy, there are still areas that the Maple Leafs must improve in if they want to become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
It’s obvious that the Maple Leafs are still missing a few key parts on their roster that must be added either before this month’s trade deadline or at some point in the off-season if they are going to compete with the likes of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Rangers consistently. But with all of this trade talk floating around the hockey world, let’s get away from romours.
There is never a time when the players are able to worry about what goes on off the ice. That is, of course, in terms of any transactions that those upstairs have planned or would like to complete. Instead, they must remain focused on the task at hand.
The Leafs have had their success against certain teams and divisions this season─Tampa Bay and the Atlantic Division, for example. However, they have struggled mightily against others, especially those that mean the most right now.
Let’s take a look at what those two groups are. You might consider these the Leafs’ two largest kryptonites as the second-half playoff push takes charge.
Versus the teams they are battling (New Jersey, Ottawa, Washington, Florida)
Combined, the Maple Leafs have faced the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers a total of 11 times. Of those 11 games, the Leafs have pulled out just four victories and have dropped six games in regulation.
While these games have been extremely important for the majority of the season due to the fact that the Leafs have sat around these teams in the standings for much of it, they are about to get even more important. You would say that one reason is that the season is getting shorter, which is correct, but there is another: The New Jersey Devils are quietly pulling out of the race and closer to home ice advantage in the playoffs.
The Devils now find themselves in a four-game winning streak and five points inside of eighth having played in just as many or less games than those around them. If the Devils keep going at this pace, there may only be three spots open come March. That is why it’s crucial for the Leafs to keep pace with New Jersey.
As for the Senators, they are quickly and, unlike the Devils, loudly falling in the Eastern Conference standings. Once nine points clear of eighth, the Senators now find themselves just three points inside of playoff position with the worst points percentage out of the four other teams mentioned above. That doesn’t make them an easy opponent, though; the Leafs have dropped three of five games against the Senators this season.
The Panthers and Capitals just may pose the largest threat to the Leafs. They are in a battle of their own for third in the conference (based on who wins the Southeast Division), but could also both sneak into the playoffs.
Considering who they have to go up against, the Leafs’ chances at the post-season are relatively high. However, with a combined seven contests remaining against the Devils, Senators, Capitals and Panthers, these games absolutely cannot be taken lightly.
Versus their own division
One major problem that a lot of people don’t realize the Maple Leafs have been having this season is playing against their own division. In total, the Leafs will have played a total of 24 games against the Northeast by the time the regular season concludes in April. Of those 24, there are six against each team. That’s bad news for the Maple Leafs.
In their 16 games against the Northeast Division this season, the Leafs have gone just 6-10-0 missing out on a total of 20 points, making for a points percentage of just .375.
Some would suggest that these numbers are inflated (or deflated) by the Leafs’ losses to the Bruins, which may be true, but that doesn’t make for any excuse. In four games against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs have yet to pull out a win and have been outscored 23-5. If the Leafs can manage to salvage anything out of the season series with the Bs, it would be two victories; one coming on March 6 and another on March 19.
The Leafs’ struggles against the Senators have already been mentioned. The Buds have gone just 2-3-0 against and Ottawa team that was once the hottest team in the league.
Toronto has had on-again, off-again success against the Buffalo Sabres this season. They’ve gone 2-2-0 against Buffalo, a record that is only mediocre and must improve. They may just be the easiest team out of the bunch to defeat, as the Sabres currently sit 13th in the Eastern Conference, just one point ahead of Montreal.
The Canadiens are the team that the Leafs have had the most success against, going 2-1-0. The good news for Toronto is that it will face Montreal three more times this season, which could mean six more points based on the way the Buds have played against the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge in 2011-2012.
These are two areas of their schedule that the Maple Leafs must improve in. Otherwise, they may not be playing in mid-April once again.
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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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.