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The Leafs' Bandwagon.
by Matt Ederer (NHL)
Posted on April 14, 2006, 12:33 PM

As early ago as two and a half weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs were basically dead in the water. Nine points out of a playoff spot with only 11 games remaining, their number one goaltender injured and out for the season, having just come off back-to-back defeats at the hands of their heated rival Montreal, both of which by four goal margins. Even some of the most loyal supporters of Canada’s team were abandoning the Blue and White for the Ottawa Senators’ Red and Black, The Calgary Flames’ Red and Orange, or, god forbid, le Rouge, Blanc et Bleu of les Canadiens.

But how befitting that, on this Easter weekend, the Leafs may be experiencing their own resurrection.

It’s beginning can be pinpointed on the 26th of March, inside New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena. It was a game that was notable for more than the fact that the underperforming Jeff O’Neill was +1, the first time since January that he had been in positive numbers. It was notable for more than the fact that Ian White got his first NHL point, and that the Leafs scored every one of their goals at even strength. This game was most notably the season debut of Jean-Sebastien Aubin, the French-Canadian goaltender who had started the season as the Leafs’ number 3 starter. Aubin backstopped the Leafs to a win over the playoff-bound New Jersey Devils in their own barn, stealing the game from a suddenly offensively proficient Devils squad, and giving the remaining Maple Leaf fans hope anew (regardless of how scant the hope appeared to be).

Since that night, Aubin has been lights out between the pipes, and his teammates have not been far behind. Aubin has yet to lose in regulation this season, amassing six wins and two overtime losses in his last eight games. In these 8 games, Aubin has been the bonafide number one goaltender that the Leafs have been searching for all year, compiling a save percentage of .925% (which would tie Dominik Hasek for the league’s second best, had Aubin played the minimum amount of games to qualify for consideration in that category. Aubin’s goals against, 2.19 would be good enough for the league’s sixth-best number). More important than the numbers JS puts up is the confidence that he gives the players in front of him. The Leafs have gotten 14 of the last 16 standings points that Aubin’s 8 games could have allowed. Aubin does of course deserve some (maybe most) of the credit for this, but the rest of the team deserves recognition for their play of late as well. Mats Sundin has been a better player in these 8 games than in the other 70 on the schedule combined (though he only actually played about 45 of those games). Players like Ben Ondrus and Luke Richardson are fitting in nicely, playing the plumber-style hockey exactly the way that they’re supposed to. The young guns, specifically Matt Stajan and Alexander Steen, are producing offensively, both with game winning goals on this 8 game run. Even Jeff O’Neill, who has arguably been the biggest disappointment in Toronto this year, has got two powerplay goals, one of which a game winner.

But before Leaf Nation plans the parade down Yonge Street, there is the matter of Toronto actually catching the teams who rank ahead of them. Here is the current (and overly complicated) situation, as of the conclusion of games played on Thursday, April 14. At 10th place in the eastern conference, it is mathematically impossible for the Leafs to go any higher than 8th place in the standings. Therefore, the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils can be forgotten in this race, as they’ve essentially already finished it. This leaves the 10th, 9th, and 8th place teams, Toronto, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The Leafs, the Thrashers, and the Lightning all have 3 games remaining. Tampa, with 89 points sits 3 points up on the Leafs’ (86), and two up on the Thrashers’ (87).

Should Tampa win any two of their next three games, they will clinch the playoff spot regardless of how the Leafs and Thrashers perform. They’ve got the second-hardest (or easiest) schedule of the three teams. The first two of Tampa’s games come in the form of a home-and-home against the Carolina Hurricanes, who themselves are playing for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, and home-ice advantage throughout it’s side of the playoffs. The Hurricanes however are not playing as well as they had earlier in the year, and are playing for less than the Lightning are. The other game is a home game against the Washington Capitals, who are not going to make the playoffs, but have the capacity to beat any team on any night, with the dangerous Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup.

Atlanta has the easiest schedule, statistically speaking, of the three teams in this race. The Thrashers’ final three games come against non-playoff teams: at home against the Boston Bruins, and on the road against the aforementioned Capitals and the Florida Panthers. The Florida Panthers, who were in this race for an extended period, will no doubt be looking to play the role of spoilers and defeat the division rival Thrashers.

Finally, we have the Leafs, who have to have the smallest odds of qualifying for the playoffs, both standings-wise, and judging by their schedule. The Leafs play the first of their remaining three against the top seeded Ottawa Senators, who they have yet to defeat in seven tries this season. Then, they go to Buffalo to play the Sabres, who are the 4th seed in the East. This game will no doubt be an emotionally charged affair, the first game since Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff’s outburst against Leafs’ forward Darcy Tucker, calling for his suspension. After those two games, they will play the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team whose superstar, Sidney Crosby, is on a mission to become the youngest player to reach 100 scoring points in a season. Much like the Capitals, this team is dangerous – it can be argued that they are even more dangerous than Washington, because Ovechkin has already hit his milestones, and Crosby is still playing toward them.

Here’s where it gets complicated. If Toronto or Atlanta tie Tampa Bay in the standings, Tampa will have the tiebreaker (most wins) and make it above either team. If Toronto and Atlanta tie for eighth, it is likely that Atlanta will have the tiebreaker, though not certain. Therefore, it is important that Toronto win every single game they play. If the Maple Leafs do not at least get four points in these three games, they will not make the playoffs. Every point that Tampa Bay gets from here on in, the Leafs must get match, on top of the four they need, to ensure their spot. Atlanta is in the same exact position, but their number is three rather than four.

To put it more simply, If Tampa loses all of their three games, Toronto can win two, or win one and lose two in overtime, and make it. If Tampa loses two of three, Toronto will make it with three wins, or two wins and an overtime loss. If Tampa wins two, Toronto will be eliminated. Atlanta needs a point less than Toronto, so they can settle for one win and an overtime loss if Tampa loses three, and a win and two overtime losses, or two wins, if Tampa loses two. If Tampa wins two, they too are eliminated.

Now that I’ve fully confused, frustrated and probably turned off about 80% of my readers, I will let who’s left in on a secret. The odds of the Leafs making the playoffs are, at best, not good. Realistically, it’s somewhere between “improbable” and “laughable”, close to improbable at this point, closer to laughable three weeks ago.

The fact of the matter is that, in their current state, the Leafs are a total enigma. They are a team without an identity – Too young to be old, too old to be young, to slow and lumbering to be speedy, not physical enough to be plumbers. There are a lot of questions to pose about this team. How many wins would the old Ed Belfour have stolen? How much of a presence could Eric Lindros have been had he played more than 33 games this season? Why has Jeff O’Neill played so poorly, and is his career (both in Toronto and in general) over? What if Sundin didn’t get hurt? What if they didn’t lose 8 games in shootouts or overtime? What if JS Aubin played all year?

All that we can be truly sure of is that the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently in the midst of a hell of a run, trying to prove that the beginning and the middle don’t matter so much, as long as you can finish strongly. Only time will tell if they will be able to pull this modern day miracle on ice off, but one must at least respect this surging team. And if you want, you can check if there’s any more room on the bandwagon, but consider yourself warned – with every check, shot, goal, save and win, it’s getting more and more crowded in here.

For the Sports Oratory, I'm Matt Ederer.

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