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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

Breathe

The clock is ticking. Believe me, I know. In less than 36 hours, we’ll know for sure who should have the X beside their name as they head into the post-season. You’re hoping its the Leafs. Most of us are hoping its the Leafs. The odds still favour the Leafs.

But you can’t shake the feeling that this is going to go awry. All it takes is two more regulation losses for them, and two more regulation/overtime wins for one of Tampa Bay or the New York Islanders. It could happen. That doesn’t mean it needs to be accepted as an inevitability.

Winning Trends

Yes, the Leafs have lost two games in a row. I suppose it would be possible for them to lose four. But how often has that happened this year? Just once: Games 3, 4, 5, and 6. Frederik Andersen was still hurting, the team was still finding its way, and they lost two of those games in overtime (Winnipeg) and a shootout (Chicago). The last two potential clinching games we’ve witnessed were also just the third time they’ve been convincingly beat in back to back games, dating back to January 31st & February 2nd (6-3 to Dallas and 5-1 to St. Louis), and February 15th & 18th (5-2 to Columbus and 6-3 to Ottawa). In the game pairs that followed both of those, they went 3-0-1.

In essence, this means that Toronto’s worst losing streak up to this point would put them into the playoffs. Toronto hasn’t gone four games in a row without picking up at least two points this season, which is all they need, this season. Meanwhile, the doomsday scenario requires Tampa Bay to go on their fifth three-game win streak of the season or for the New York Islanders to extend their streak to six. That’s also a possible feat, but they haven’t accomplished it since February 2008.

On sheer odds alone, the idea of this ending in catastrophic fashion seem slim to none.

Opponents

A lot is being made of the opponents that each of the three teams will face this weekend. In case you need a refresher:

  • Toronto: Pittsburgh Saturday, Columbus Sunday
  • Tampa Bay: Montreal Friday, Buffalo Sunday
  • NY Islanders: Devils Saturday, Senators Sunday

On the surface, Toronto has the toughest competition, with two powerhouse Metropolitan teams to take on, while the others have one good Atlantic team and one basement-ish team to take on. I do think that’s underselling the challenge that others have, though.

Tampa is being thrown straight into the fire tonight. That’s absolutely undeniable. The Habs are 14-4-1 in their last 19 games, and are treating tonight’s game like the “heavy” game of the two. It’s one last test for them before wrapping up the season in Detroit, who will no doubt be playing unnecessarily heavy-handed hockey in their last weekend ever at Joe Louis Arena. Carey Price will start for the Habs tonight, and as we all know (for better and worse), he’s capable of winning a game on his own. Tampa, on the other hand is travelling on a back to back. Then you have the Sabres on Sunday, and while they haven’t been great this year, they’ve shown capability to pull off an upset or two.

The Islanders have it a bit easier. Their first opponent are the New Jersey Devils who have won… three of their last 22 games?! Okay, that’s mildly concerning. But it’s their last home game of the year against a division rival, so maybe they show up. Their last win before the megaslump, in fact, was a regulation home victory against the Islanders. Ottawa, on the other hand, will definitely have something to prove. They’re a little broken, but they’re looking to put a 5-game losing streak from March behind them as they start their playoff push, and are jockeying for position in the division. The hope is that the Leafs can put the X behind them before this came happens so the Islanders can be cheered for. But this will likely be hard fought one either way.

Toronto’s on the other end of the spectrum. The Penguins and the Blue Jackets have both securely placed themselves in 2nd and 3rd in the division. It’s locked in. It’s done. They’re facing each other, the Penguins have home ice, and it’s going to be a bloodbath. With that in mind, both will likely be wanting to rest their bones in anticipation of that.

In these two opponents, Toronto has matchups on different sides of the spectrum. the Penguins are on a 4-game winning streak; even if they don’t rest players, they’ve only made it to five once this year. The Jackets are, on the other hand, tailspinning, having lost five in a row since March 30th. They’ll probably be a bit more eager to turn things around, but also won’t be giving 110% in Game 82 with Game 1 around the corner.

The long and short of it is this: the games are basically a wash here. Everyone’s got a mix of opponents who can be tough, have been hot, and have been cold of late. Toronto has the hardest pair to face in a series, but in context, they might be safe. Oh, and they’re tied in both season series right now.

Not Those Leafs

Let’s be real, though. The reason why everybody is so sure that this is going to end poorly isn’t nestled in probability, it’s nestled in pessimism. It’s hard to tell this fanbase otherwise, and it’s hard to blame them for being skeptics. They’ve seen blown leads, lost seasons, eighteen wheelers, and Game 7s. They’ve seen a season thrown away by awful goaltending and put to rest by a shootout that wasn’t even their own. They’ve seen playoff runs twist the other way on single plays. They’ve seen a lot of crap over their years.

But these Leafs aren’t those Leafs. That’s not to say that this group isn’t immune to it’s own heartache, it’s own pain, but it is to say that they don’t automatically carrying on the legacy of previous failure simply by putting on the (completely different nowadays) sweater.

These Leafs are being led by a group of kids who weren’t even around the sphere of professional hockey when your heart was torn into pieces by those Leafs. These Leafs have their up and down moments, but haven’t suffered long-term derailment from them.  These Leafs aren’t in an advantageous situation because of luck; they’re playing to about where they should be, whether you expected so or not six months ago.

Just two of eight points have to go their way. If two of them come from themselves, its the blow that kills both underdogs. The odds are in their favour and this team has shown resilience through adversity before. Things could still go sour, but the odds of that happening remain slim.

See you Saturday.

  • MartinPolak

    jeffler is channeling his inner Randy Carlyle in this piece with ‘breathe’. let’s hope the leafs respond well. this is another outstanding piece by the best leafs sports reporter out there.

  • FlareKnight

    In the end, whatever happens will happen.

    These Leafs aren’t those Leafs…yet. Two more games and we’ll know at least whether they are in or not. All the numbers and everything and it comes down to some simple questions. Can one of the Lightning/Islanders win two straight and can the Leafs win one of the next two games? We’ll know pretty shortly. I think it’s plausible for the Leafs to get in or miss it. It’s not hard to lose twice to two of the top teams in the conference and it’s not hard for teams like the Lightning or Islanders to just win two games. But it’s also not that hard for the Leafs to win a game.

    These aren’t those Leafs. But they sure looked like them yesterday. Doesn’t mean they will this weekend. We have to wait and see what this team is made of. We can break down all the games that matter for the Leafs to get in or not, but we just don’t know. Montreal could really want to put an end to Tampa and not see them in the playoffs. Or Pittsburgh could want to create the possibility of Tampa getting in so they can make things hard on Washington. Or the Pens/Blue Jackets could be looking past Toronto to their playoff series. There are so many variables to take into consideration that we can’t really know how anyone is going to be playing here.

    So let’s see. If the Leafs screw it up, we’ll have a long summer to lament it. If they don’t then we have something else to cheer for. I’m hoping they win. But I’m not as optimistic as before Thursday. Doesn’t matter since the team just has to play well.

  • jimithy

    Key players from the teams early success seem tired and worn out. Marner is making lots of mistakes lately and appears exhausted. Connor Brown and Zach Hyman are having trouble keeping up and Gardiner looks like he thinks he’s the only one on the team. Then, there is the continual dilemma of habitually getting hemmed in their own zone for interminable lengths of time in all three periods, something you will never see happening anywhere else. A big part of these Leafs are those Leafs, meaning of course the Waffle 5, and that’s troubling.

  • al m

    We are going to get great goaltending and one or more of the Leafs will step up to the point where we’ll all be talking about it come Sunday…yeah, won’t even need the second game of the back to back.
    Too long we’ve been waiting. No longer! This team is capable of beating any other team in the league if need be, and the need be now!
    Heh… 😉
    Great time of year to be a fan!

  • Glen

    I have been critical of the Leafs in the past and will continue to call a spade a spade, however no matter what happens here we can’t forget the big picture. Listened to the three stooges on overdrive yesterday calling out the Leaf rookies and I think that is totally unfair. If this goes south it will be because the vets failed to give leadership and support to the kids. The Leafs have a fine core group up front going forward with the kids, and no matter what happens don’t throw them under the bus. With good moves from management some day they will hoist the cup. Now lets see the vets score a few big ones and show some leadership against the Pens. GLG

  • Stan Smith

    The Leafs have won key games all year, not them all, but most of them. They have won games people didn’t expect them to win. They now have two games where at least one of them is a must win. We’ll see how they do with their backs against the wall.

  • lukewarmwater

    Jeff 21 hours since the last article has been regurgitated from the leaf nation. From the bottom of my large heart I want to thank you thank you and the nation staff for keeping us up to date with articles hot off the press wires on the most important weekend of the Leafs season. Professionalism such as has been displayed by the leaf nation journalists can’t be found anywhere else in our great milky way.