TORONTO - For the first time in a long time, the Maple Leafs are making a legitimate playoff push in the home stretch of the season.
Early Friday, Toronto was only four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. But Carolina’s win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night pushed Toronto to six points back.
“It should be a fun end to the season,” Leafs goaltender James Reimer said. “I’m sure teams will be flip-flopping all over the place.”
With just eight points separating the eighth through 12th seeds in the Eastern Conference entering play Saturday, the Leafs are involved in an uphill battle they’ll be watching closely through the last quarter of the season.
“You’re looking at the standings and see what other teams are doing and then you’ve got to take care of your own games,” Reimer said. “You need to know where you are and where other teams are so you have an understanding of what’s going on.”
The Leafs, who have not made the playoffs since 2004, are facing a tough challenge with the Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres ahead of them in the standings for the race for eighth.
Despite trailing, though, winger Joffrey Lupul said the team has to stay focused.
“Naturally you do tend to scoreboard watch,” Lupul said. “We’ve just got to take care of our games.”
It has been a tough year between the pipes for the Leafs, with Jean-Sebastien Giguere missing time with injury and a struggling Jonas Gustavsson on assignment with the Marlies.
But all is not lost in the land of the Leafs, with rookie Reimer stepping up in a big way and providing Toronto with some stability at the position.
The happy-go-lucky Reimer, who head coach Ron Wilson said brings a calming presence to the squad, has proven his worth at the NHL level with a 10-4-2 record and a .941 save percentage entering play Saturday.
“I don’t think there’s anything really too special that I’m doing,” Reimer said. “I just try and be quiet and just focus on what I have to do during the game and go out there and try to do it to the best of my ability.”
Reimer, who turns 23 next month, has been nothing short of spectacular in his freshman campaign, and has left Wilson and general manager Brian Burke with some tough decisions in the near-future.
Gustavsson was assigned to the Marlies on Feb. 4 for conditioning, but his assignment was suspended as he underwent an ablation procedure on Feb. 11 to deal with recurring heart problems.
With his assignment set to expire next week, Wilson said the big Swede will be back with the Leafs.
“He can only stay for 14 days so as soon as the 14 days are up or sooner we’ll bring him back,” Wilson said.
With the Monster’s return, though, Toronto will be stuck with a logjam in net. The only sure thing for the Leafs, though, is that Reimer’s their guy.
The Leafs are set to host Pittsburgh again on Wednesday night, marking the first time Toronto has hosted the same team in consecutive home games since 2007-08, when the New Jersey Devils were in town for two in a row ... Luke Schenn leads all NHL defenceman in hits this season (190) and is second on the Leafs in blocked shots (125) ... Toronto has won 15 of 20 games in which winger Phil Kessel scores ... Through the first 61 games this season, Toronto notched 61 points; in the same span last season the team had only 49.