October 19, 2010
Are Leafs playoff bound already?
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The point of the Maple Leafs' loss to the New York Islanders on Monday was not that the Leafs got screwed by the refs.
Nor was it that the Leafs suddenly have come back to Earth, quite the opposite actually, given it was one of their better efforts of the young season.
No, the main point of the 2-1 overtime loss was, well, the point.
After five games, the Leafs have nine of them now, a nice jump out of the starting gate that, if the effort and attitude that has led to it continue, will be huge when the playoff math starts to get interesting.
That’s right, just five games into the season, we are going to use Maple Leafs and playoffs in the same sentence.
Ridiculous? Perhaps, given the sample size is still a little light at just five games and the book on the new, improved (and fast) Maple Leafs is rapidly circulating around the NHL.
Relevant? You can make a case for it.
Again, with a caveat that it is only five games, you can make the argument that the Leafs need only to play .500 hockey the rest of the season to make the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time in what then would be six seasons.
We will round down and say, for example, that Ron Wilson’s crew wins 38 of their remaining 77 games. With the nine points they have right now, that gets them to 85, plus whatever they accumulate in overtime or shootout losses.
The past five seasons, the Leafs have averaged 11.4 of those bogus bonus points. If you buy into the argument that playoff-bound teams win more of those overtime games than poorer teams, the eight that qualified in the Eastern Conference last season averaged nine extra points.
So if you take the lower of the two, the Leafs would get to 94, a total that would have qualified each of the past three seasons and would have qualified handily last year when Montreal snuck in as the No. 8 seed with 88 points.
“We’re still the only team in the league with a zero in the loss column,” Wilson said Tuesday following practice at the MasterCard Centre. “Nine points out of 10 is a pretty good number right now.
“As we keep improving as a team, I don’t think we’re going to be catching people unaware. It’s pretty much advertised now that we’re faster and better than we were last year.”
So how does Wilson keep the success alive as the sample size gets more significant in terms of projecting towards a potential playoff berth?
The defence, which has allowed a league-low 23 shots on goal per game, has to continue to deliver as does goaltending and scoring beyond the first line.
The biggest factor, though, will be to avoid disastrous lengthy losing streaks that plagued them last season. The eight-gamer to start the season got the most attention — though the Leafs have officially moved on by angrily (and fairly) shooting down any talk of that as irrelevant.
The 2009-2010 season wasn’t just lost in a month, however. There were other awful stretches including one six-game, one five-game, and three four-game losing spells. Limiting the damage of the rough patches that are inevitable in an 82-game season will go a long way to keeping the numbers in the Leafs’ favour.
As for the speed of the Leafs, it has been evident throughout the five games but probably no more so than against the Islanders. The result was an upbeat, entertaining game and an electric atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre that often was missing at midweek dates in recent years.
Also telling was the reaction afterward. Players were ticked at letting one get away, a result that suddenly seems acceptable around them.
“I don’t know what it was like in the past, but I got the feeling guys probably wouldn’t have cared as much if they would have lost,” goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. “I think mentally it is changing around here. Instead of expecting to lose, we are expecting to win.”