With 21 games left to play in what was considered a lost season only two weeks ago, guess which NHL team is within four points of the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference? Did you guess the Toronto Maple Leafs? If it weren’t for the fact they’re my favorite team and I record all of their games on my DVR while I’m at the office I wouldn’t have guess them either.
How did this happen? In rookie James Reimer, the Leafs finally have solid goaltending for the first time since… well, that’s considered a trick trivia question so let’s move on before you answer Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk.
Since his promotion from the Toronto Marlies (AHL), Reimer has been nothing short of spectacular. In 16 career NHL games he has a 9-4-2 record, a 2.12 goals against average, a .930 save percentage and two shutouts. If you were to translate those stats into a full season he would be ranked as one of the top two or three goalies in the league, which is a far cry from the Vesa Toskala days when a 197-foot clearing pass out of the other team’s end would become a defensive misadventure.
It also helps to have a little offense, which was something the Leafs didn’t have much of at the beginning of the season. Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel all have a good chance of finishing the season with 30 or more goals, and Clarke MacArthur could also reach that plateau if he rediscovers his scoring touch.
Oddly enough, this team has overcome the deficiencies of Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda on defense as well as the trades of Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle and Kris Versteeg to post a 8-2-2 record since the All-Star Break. You don’t post one of the best records during the stretch run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs by luck. You do that with effort, skill and a commitment to winning.
Will the Leafs make the playoffs? It’s hard to temper my enthusiasm for this late season run but the Leafs realistically need 88 points to make the playoffs. To get there, they will need to go 13-7-1 the rest of the way against the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. It’s not an impossible task, but you’re asking for Reimer to make at least 16 starts between now and the end of the season and to continue his stellar play.
I’ve seen the Leafs miss the playoffs by one point in 2005-06 and in 2006-07 but then again no players remain from those teams that came up short so anything is possible.