Maple Leafs playoff cushion diminishing quickly

All was good one week ago: the Leafs had just taken four of six possible points in California and they sat eight points ahead of the first non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference. But that eight point lead has all but been erased mighty quickly. Three straight losses – one of which came to division rival the Tampa Bay Lightning – and now the Leafs’ playoff cushion is a mere three points.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have 80 points and they occupy the first wild card spot in the East. Below them in the standings the New York Rangers boast 78 points. On the outside looking in the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals are tied with 77 and both teams sport two of the longest active playoff streaks.

The Maple Leafs should hang on and make the playoffs, but it won’t be easy. They have a three point lead on the Wings, but the Wings have two games in hand, and to be fair, if not for injuries to several top players Detroit would likely be much higher in the standings, and if that were the case the Leafs season would already be done, perhaps. But it’s not – they just need to string together a few wins over the next few weeks and Toronto will qualify for the post-season in two straight seasons for the first time since 2003 and 2004.

Much has been made of the Leafs defensive struggles this season. As of this morning, they are 26th in the league for goals against. In fact, of all the teams in the bottom ten of the NHL standings for goals allowed, the Leafs are the only one currently holding down a playoff spot. To put that into perspective: every bottom ten goals against team missed the playoffs one year ago. The point is: teams that struggle with defence usually don’t do well in hockey – it’s simple and logical, and the Leafs are currently defying that logic, barely.

But the Leafs can score goals – they have 208 this season, which is good enough for ninth most in the NHL. However, their goal differential is -11; not a good sign.

And the Maple Leafs don’t have many teams beat if a tiebreaker is to occur for the final spot because Toronto’s nine shootout wins are the most in the Eastern Conference and shootout wins don’t count toward final standings tiebreakers. So the Leafs need to qualify cleanly by having more points than their competition for the bottom spots.

The Leafs could get hot the rest of the way and climb back up into a top three spot in the Atlantic Division – no one needs to believe that possibility has escaped them. That being said, with eleven games remaining, the Leafs no longer control their own fate. Should Toronto’s opponents win out the rest of their games and Toronto do the same, the Leafs will not make the playoffs.

The Leafs possess an explosive offensive attack largely led by one line: Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel. When the Leafs top line is scoring the Leafs are winning; and when it’s not, they ain’t.

A recent injury to first year Leaf, goaltender Jonathan Bernier, has been matched with three straight losses for backup James Reimer. Some blame Reimer, others blame the Leafs overall team defence – either way, the sooner Bernier returns the better for Toronto. Before his injury Bernier had won three straight.

The Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre in a must-win for both teams, but especially for the Leafs. Should Toronto lose to the Habs while a few of their competitors win, the Leafs could be on the outside looking in by Monday morning, then they’ll be the team chasing a playoff spot and that eight point lead from last week will be a distant, irrelevant memory.