Thirteen days ago, I wrote about what the Leafs had to do to to even entertain ideas of qualifying for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many people, here and on twitter, had a field day with my “ridiculous” suggestion. But, the “Can they make the playoffs?” question is suddenly radio fodder in Toronto. Today, the Leafs are six points back of the Hurricanes (who currently occupy eighth). The Leafs have a game in-hand on Carolina, with Toronto having 22 games remaining in their regular season. I wonder how many people still think a Toronto post-season berth is unrealistic. It is not.
Back then, I wrote that the Leafs had to win four out of every five games over the remainder of the season. That’s earning eight out of every ten possible points. Their most recent streak was seven out of ten. Pretty good. Their next five games are in Montreal, v. Pittsburgh, at Atlanta, v. Pittsburgh again and in Philadelphia. Eight points over that stretch is going to be extremely tough – especially now that the Penguins have re-acquired Alexei “I’ll play whenever I feel like it” Kovalev.
But two sets of scapulae are going to shoulder the load if Toronto is going to continue its overachievement. With both J-S Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson nursing various ailments, the Leafs Nation has come to realize that, if they make it to the postseason, James Reimer is going to be the horse that brought them there. One of their problems is, on home ice, they don’t score a lot in front of Reimer. That has to change. Since his insertion as the Leafs’ top netminder, Reimer has done absolutely everything anyone could have asked from him. And he’s going to have to keep his foot on the goaltending gas for another month-and-a-half.
And, in a shock beyond all early proportions, Phil Kessel was the guy to change the “Can’t score at home” pattern last Tuesday against the Islanders. His game-winning goal, with less than five minutes left, spawned visions of what many die-hards think this guy can do. I’m still not sold, but it was a very impressive goal…at a very impressive time…against a goaltender (Al Montoya) who’d played a very impressive game. So, two guys are in the spotlight. One who’s been in many Leafs’ fans’ doghouse all season. Another who didn’t begin this season on anyone’s team radar.
Now, I’m not a big speculator. Hard to break old network television habits. But, this morning, Paul Stastny and John-Michael Liles were not skating with the Avalanche in Colorado. Whether or not Brian Burke acquires one, or both, of these two players, it will be another change to a team chemistry that took a major shot last Monday when Tomas Kaberle was punted to Boston.
If Reimer keeps up the solid (if not spectacular) play. If Kessel can keep the creativity train moving forward. And if Burke can add another piece or two to the line-up before next Monday’s trade deadline, the Leafs will continue moving toward something that, just a month ago, seemed very impossible.