THE WEEK IN REVIEW: The Toronto Maple Leafs posted a 2-1-1 record and earned five points. This puts the Leafs in tenth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 67 points. With sixteen games left in the regular season, the Leafs are now four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot. Between them and the Hurricanes are the ninth place Buffalo Sabres, who have 70 points and two games in hand.
The Leafs started the week with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, who are now two points behind the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings. Ideally, you do not want to have a “three-point” game, but if you must play in one and lose, it’s better to lose to a team behind you in the standings so they only gain one point on you instead of two.
On Wednesday, the Leafs hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in back-to-back games against the two NHL teams based in Pennsylvania. In yet another three-point game, Mikhail Grabovski scored the game winning goal in overtime. Since Pittsburgh is out of reach in the Eastern Conference standings, it was a case of “no harm, no foul” when the Leafs gave up the “pity point” to the Penguins. The following evening the Leafs traveled to Philadelphia to play the hated Flyers, and Darryl Boyce came through with the game winning goal late in the third period to secure the win.
On Saturday night, the Leafs fell flat against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. They gave up three first-period goals thanks to horrid defensive play and turnovers in the neutral zone and never recovered. Super rookie goalie James Reimer was pulled after two periods and Jean-Sebastien Giguere only faced six shots in mop-up duty.
THE PATH TO 88 POINTS: To finish the season with 88 points, the likely point total needed to secure eighth place, the Leafs need to get 21 points in their remaining sixteen games. That means they need to post at least an 8-3-5 record but they will be in much better shape if they go 9-4-3 or better. To reach that goal, the Leafs need any combination of four points in the next three games.
THE COMING WEEK: The Leafs are on their normal Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday schedule. On Tuesday they travel to Long Island to play the Islanders, then host the Flyers and the Sabres to close out the week. Going 2-1-0 is not only an attainable goal, but they must avoid losing to the Sabres on Saturday night, even if it’s in overtime.
THE X-FACTOR: The Buffalo Sabres have two games in hand on the Leafs, but have you seen their schedule? Of the eighteen games left in their season, fourteen of them are on back-to-back nights. That in my mind makes Buffalo’s path to the playoffs tougher, but in the end the Leafs cannot depend on a tired Sabres team to choke down the stretch. They have to continue playing as if every night is a playoff game if they’re going to play beyond April 9th.