TORONTO - The hope, if there is to be any, has to come from the Maple Leafs. It has to come from their passion and effort and the desperation of this apparent playoff drive.
It came when the Leafs needed it most Wednesday. Barely.
If there is a minute or two to believe in the Maple Leafs as this season meanders on, then that is certainly better than the alternative. They got two points against the Pittsburgh Penguins, although it’s difficult to explain how.
They didn’t play particularly well. They didn’t play particularly hard. They mustered all of 20 shots at the undermanned Penguins, but on a rare night in a not-so-rare season, that was good enough.
Good enough to get two points. Not good enough to convince anybody that the longshot Leafs have any real shot at getting in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
They are four points behind the Carolina Hurricanes now, no games in hand. They had to beat Pittsburgh Wednesday after failing to beat them on Saturday night and failing to take advantage of Atlanta the night after. They left two points on the board on the weekend. They almost left another two Wednesday against Pittsburgh. But they recovered with a third-period goal, an overtime winner by the ever-handy Mikhail Grabovski, and another win by James Reimer, who could afford to be somewhat shaky against a team missing almost all of its offence.
Had the Leafs lost Wednesday, it would have been time to declare them null and void as a playoff contender. It would have been the third straight defeat and the third straight disappointing performance. Instead, they have some breath, just not a lot. And hardly anyone wiggle room with 18 games left to play and a playoff spot still possible, just not probable.
The Leafs wound up with the favoured result against the Penguins, but not a performance most could believe in. They lacked intensity, almost from the beginning of the game. They ran around too much in their own zone. They were fortunate the Pittsburgh offence is mostly back in Pittsburgh. But they got the two points. That has to mean something, although we’re not certain as to what.
The mid-week games at the Air Canada Centre are baked with malaise. This has been a chicken-egg season for the Leafs, what comes first, their mid-week funks or the the seemingly dead crowds at the ACC. And which leads to the other?
The Leafs are now four points out, with 18 games to play. They have 65 points. They have a shot. Conservatively, they will need at least 90 to play in the post-season. That means they need 25 points in 18 games. That’s about a 12-5-1 record. As longshots go, this is another Toronto March and April of hope and despair and angst and more hope. The Leafs annually tease and taunt at this time of calendar. But in every season since the lockout and the Leafs inability to outspend other teams, it has ended in disappointment.
The realist would think the Leafs have no real shot. The optimistic might think they have a small shot. The blind-faithed crazy Leaf fans - and you know you you are - will be saying it’s inevitable.
Twenty-five points is something that hasn’t happened in the final 18 games in an almost a hockey lifetime.
In Ron Wilson’s first two seasons coaching the Leafs, they managed 18 and 20 points in the final 18 games. In Paul Maurice’s two seasons coaching the Leafs, the team wound up with 22 and 20. In the season that got Pat Quinn fired and J.S. Aubin got hot near the end, the Leafs had 24 points in 18 games.
They need to be better than all those years in the next five weeks.
If not, this will be Year 6 of being on the outside looking in. Year 6 of having playoffs, just not here. The first time, it seemed dreadful. The second and third times, as Brian Burke would say, like being kicked in the stomach. Now, it seems somewhat like a distant memory: You recall it happened, just don’t know exactly when.
The challenge is there for the Leafs who don’t seem up to it. Thankfully, the goal scorers, and in particular Phil Kessel and the impressive line 60-plus goal line of Grabovski, Nik Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur have given them ma chance most nights.
The next two games are against the Stanley Cup finalists, Philadelphia and Chicago. Points won’t come easily and the Blackhawks are fighting for their own playoff lives. It could well mean they need 25 points in 16 games.
That happens, and you can say, without a doubt, their opportunity has passed.