Like MJ said, albeit from his grave, "This Is It!" Because the Maple Leafs have been sniffing the playoff race since early February, when they went on their insane 10-3-5 run, virtually all of those “The Leafs will never make the playoffs” frumps have disappeared into the woodwork. The hockey world knows that the Leafs have a real chance to compete in the postseason. But, every game that occurs without them getting two points (like v. Chicago and on Long Island) makes the job tougher. With 15 games remaining, let’s look at how tough it might be.
As a reference, let’s assume that the teams whom Toronto will fight with for that eighth spot will play exactly .500 hockey the rest of the way. That means one point for every game they play. If that happens, the final standings will finish like this: Sabres 88, Rangers 87, Hurricanes 87. The Leafs have to pass two of these teams to reach the playoffs.
So, let’s reason that the bare minimum number of points that Toronto will need to make is 88. With 15 games remaining, the Leafs would need 20 more points. That’s ten wins in fifteen games. Is that doable? Yes, it is. But it gets tough because, of those remaining 15, nine are against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. Two are against Buffalo (both at ACC) and one is against Carolina (in Raleigh).
At this point in the season, the numbers do not lie. And, before you ask, many other times they do. Let’s say the Leafs do not take a point from Philadelphia Thursday night. That then means they’d have to win ten of their next fourteen. A loss against Buffalo on Saturday…and that would be ten wins in thirteen.
The Leafs have one job every night – avoid painting themselves into that “must win at all costs” corner. Of course, if the Sabres, Rangers and Hurricanes all play over-.500 hockey the rest of the way, the Leafs are toast. Toronto is not going to finish the season with 94 points. Not gonna happen.
I love this time of the season, because you get a true sense of the greatness of players. The playoffs are the highest level, but the race to reach is just one step below. How will James Reimer respond over these final fifteen? I must admit, the other night on Long Island, after the puck got past him, the “staring up to the heavens” pose he struck once or twice, was a bit unnerving. He’s thinking. STOP THINKING, JAMES! Just stop the puck. By being the Leafs’ guy over this final month of the season, Reimer has been thrust into one of the toughest spots a rookie can face. Ken Dryden could tell you all about it. So could Andy Moog. Other guys, like Ron Hextall and Patrick Roy, got full seasons under their belts before the playoff pressure-cooker.
Nik Kulemin has clearly stepped up in the stretch. So has, to a degree, Dion Phaneuf. Phil Kessel could do more. So could Mikhail Grabovski. Especially based on their hot stretches earlier this season. Philadelphia’s going to be a tall order. So is Buffalo on Saturday. The key, right now for the Leafs, is to keep themselves out of that painted corner.