Outside of the battle for the first playoff appearance in nearly a decade, which the Leafs are surely in the thick of, there's another quiet battle going on between fans who want to buy in that this team is going nowhere but up, and others who are holding their breath and waiting for the law of averages to crush our hopes and dreams.
The Maple Leafs are absolutely scorching right now. On February 5th the team had a 4-5-0 record and sat in tenth place, with a -5 goal differential. Since then they've only lost one game and now sit at 10-6-0 (still without an overtime/shootout loss, strangely), good for sixth in the standings, a +10 goal differential, and five points between them and the ninth place Lightning. Though, Tampa does have two games in hand currently.
Either way, it's been a good month, and with a win over the Lightning tonight, the Leafs can put themselves in a really good position with only 31 games remaining. As we're well aware, making up 7 points isn't as easy as it seems in the NHL.
But back to the hot streak, and perhaps buying in to it too much.
The Leafs are lucky. They're getting pucks to go in, and they're getting great goaltending right now. They haven't been dominating teams, but they've been racking up wins over the past couple weeks. Eventually that luck will go south, and the Leafs will tumble down the standings. The question, of course, is how far. And I think the answer there relies heavily on goaltending. Yes, groundbreaking stuff, I know.
It's obviously unreasonable to expect the Leafs' goaltending tandem to reel off shutouts left and right, but if they can continue to be good, just good, I think the team will stay in the mix. An all out freefall through the standings would likely require another disastrous stretch combined with brutal goaltending, like last season.
I'll admit, I took this team as a 14th place finisher in pre-season predictions. It would take a lot of bad things really snowballing to see that happen over the next 32 games, so I'm quite sure my prediction will be wrong. But I think a lot of this talk about Burke or Wilson not being around to see the team evolve in to a good one "like what happened in St. Louis" is foolish. And it seems as though some people are ready to build a Carlyle statue by the ACC.
I'm no advanced stats expert but it isn't difficult to understand how luck factors in to the game of hockey. Just from watching the game for years it's pretty clear to see when things are simply going the team's way and it isn't sustainable.
It's a hot streak. The Leafs are hot, and eventually they'll be cold. But if Scrivens and Reimer can keep up their good work in these last two thirds of the shortened season, they may be able steal the difference-making points that put this bubble team on top of the dotted line in the standings.
It seems like the people who are cautious about this strong start are viewed as a negative bunch, but that isn't necessarily the case. I'm cautious about it because, as many have pointed out, this start is nearly identical to last year's.
You can put me in the group that thinks the bounces will eventually come back the other way to kick Toronto's ass. I'm just not sure it will kick it quite as hard as last year, or, I guess I should say I don't see the goaltending going to absolute garbage again. Plus right now the Eastern Conference looks pretty weak, and the Leafs still have options like Gardiner, a returning Lupul, and even Connolly over the course of this season.
Hopefully it's all enough to soften the blow.