TORONTO - Whether or not Wiarton Willie or Punxsutawney Phil see their shadows this week, here’s one groundhog prediction that has held true five straight years.
The Maple Leafs are going to shock themselves, anger their fans and stump their bosses with a late-winter run that does just enough for faint playoff hopes to flicker and give management pause for thought about making changes. Every year since the lockout of 2004-05, the Leafs start playing consistent hockey after Feb. 1 with a points percentage at or above .500.
It has really been eight straight seasons that the Leafs have turned it on down the stretch, but their record of 48-29-8 between 2001-04 covers three years they made the playoffs and a time when ties were fashionable and shootouts were thought too radical.
You need not be a math major at U of T to apply that post-February win-loss formula in the first four months to avoid the annual double-digit deficit separating them for a playoff spot. Toronto returns from the NHL all-star break to face the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, 14 points out and with four teams to catch.
Will history repeat itself when the Leafs begin seven games in 12 nights?
“I hope so,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Regardless of what time of the season it is, there’s no fun in losing. You want to pick it up, whether it’s the beginning, middle or end.
“You can’t do anything about the start of the season now. Just look forward to the future and try to get some wins.”
Why the Leafs suddenly get moving in the dog days of the schedule has no singular answer, but try these:
1) No pressure.
“I’ve learned they play well when it’s off,” interim general manager Cliff Fletcher griped a couple of years ago when the bottom-rung Leafs started to surge.
By the end of January, fan expectations are quite low, the media tires of flogging a dead horse and the Leafs tend to mend their ways, especially on the road where they can keep it simple. They also go into spoiler mode when taking on contenders.
2) Passing of the trade deadline.
This is symptomatic of all clubs in this position. Once the threat of moving wives, families and off-ice business interests is removed for another year, they can get back to hockey. The Leafs are hurting in the standings, but Toronto is still a great place to live and the joint is always full of mostly forgiving fans. While the number of Leafs with the deal-killing no movement clause has dropped the past few years, most still prefer it here, some willing to stick it out for better times rather than seek a trade.
Brian Burke will likely make a deal, too, and if it is for the young prospect(s) he craves ahead of draft choices then that player would presumably be anxious to please. This year’s trade deadline is Feb. 28.
3) Better goaltending
Since Ron Wilson has been coach, there have been three goaltending switches in the second half that have boosted the Leafs’ standing, Martin Gerber, Jean-Seabstien Giguere and now James Reimer. Giguere started well, but was hurt.
4) New farmhands
Teams out of the race usually give their minor leaguers plenty of exposure. Reimer has already been promoted and the Leafs have already seen better-than-expected results from Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce. Look for Marlies such as Nazem Kadri, Fabrian Brunnstrom and Keith Aulie to see some time with the Leafs.
Schenn’s basic theory is that a few days off will have done the Leafs good, pointing to the club’s 6-3 record after the Christmas break.
“Go home and get mentally refreshed and be ready to have a good charge down the last stretch,” he advised. “You can’t worry about what every team (in the Eastern race) is doing every night. You have to find a way to get points yourself.
“You never know what can happen. You get on a bit of a roll and you can clumb back into it. But that doesn’t depend on what everyone else is doing, we have to better ourselves.”
Strangely enough, that could be the easy part.