With a little less than two months left in the regular season, the Leafs now have a clear path to the postseason in front of them.
When things got off to a disastrous start leading up to the Babcock firing in November, there was a lot of uncertainty around whether or not the team would be able to respond to Keefe quick enough to turn their entire season around and make a proper push get back firmly in the playoffs. But as of today, with just 25 games left on their calendar, Toronto sits in a place (third in the Atlantic, to be more specific) where they can take care of their own business from here on out and hold tight for another postseason berth – their fourth in a row, potentially.
I don’t have to recap too much about the standings picture now because you probably check it as much as I do, but with the way things have shaken out in the last few weeks, it might surprise you that the focus for Leafs supporters can shift from worry about the wildcard picture to locking down the 3-spot in the division almost entirely.
I mean, from here on it’s fairly simple: The Leafs just need to outplay the Panthers and they lock up a divisional playoff spot. No help outside that needed, they control their own destiny. And yes, I know I’m not breaking any major news here, but let’s not forget that just a couple weeks ago there was a boatload of panic in Toronto about how the team was on the outside looking in coming out of the All-Star break. They needed help and needed to help themselves. With no games in hand on anyone they were chasing and gut-wrenching loss to the Panthers last week that represented a four-point swing, they desperately needed to make a climb.
Well, they’ve climbed, even though it may not have felt that way these last few games. This team is entirely in the driver’s seat now in terms of controlling their path to the playoffs.
Zooming in on that battle between the Leafs and Panthers the rest of the way, Toronto just needs to be a smidge better. A smidge, a point. That’s it. Unfortunately for Toronto, if the two teams did happen to tie in points at season’s end, Florida could get the nod due to a new rule on regulation wins (where they lead 25-22) instead of ROW being the first tie-break, but the Leafs can do themselves a hell of a lot of favours with two head-to-head games against the Panthers remaining – a swing of eight points in the standings on the line, they could pretty much end Florida’s season (or their own) there. Either way, there are no excuses left from here on, they just need outplay one team and they’re in.
To put it in perspective, let’s say the two teams are racing for around 98 points – usually the cutoff for playoff teams. For the Leafs that looks something like 14-9-2 the rest of the way, and for the Panthers, well, 15-9-2 since they have the additional game in the bank. There’s obviously nothing advanced about this, but it illustrates that while 25 to 26 games remaining on the schedule seems like a lot of runway, when you look at it in terms of what the records will likely shake out at, things close up quickly. A point or two off this pace for either team now makes things difficult.
But how confident should we be in the Leafs actually playing better than the teams around them, especially this Florida club? With an ounce of competent goaltending, things should be looking good.
It may not seem this way, but the Leafs have consistently been trending in the right direction over the last couple months, where their offence has actually soared while taking a small cut out of what they’re giving up as well. They’re generating offensive opportunity at a near-league-best rate, and I don’t see that slowing down.
If not for a rough stretch of netminding between both Andersen and Hutchinson in the new year, this team would be much better off in standings right now and perhaps a lot of criticism about players, especially on the back-end, wouldn’t be quite so loud. But as things stand today, this is a team that has its own fate in its hands anyway, they don’t need anyone else’s help. And that’s about all you can ask for given where they were at when the bench changed hands.