Leafs: What will it take?

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:23 PM ET

Another day, another desperation date.

So it will be with the Maple Leafs as they feverishly continue their attempt to make up for lost time earlier in the NHL season and stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Just when you want to count them out over the past several weeks, the Leafs have managed to do something to make their long-suffering followers believe.

With 15 games left, however, the urgency becomes heightened with each remaining game.

It begins anew Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Philadelphia Flyers, with the assignment of defeating the top team in the conference for the second consecutive week.

The Leafs being in an active playoff race this “deep” into a season has led to a wide range of reaction over the past few weeks. There has been ridicule, with mathematical experts chiming in on how it’s impossible for the team to make up four to six points over 20 games.

There has been optimism and enthusiasm over the inspired play from the mostly youthful roster.

And most of all, there has been renewed interest in a team that has offered such little hope to its fan base over the past five seasons.

A week from now, the picture could be dramatically different, given that over that time span two of the Leafs’ four games will be against teams directly in front of them — Saturday at home to Buffalo and Wednesday at Carolina.

So, what will it take to get in the dance? The Leafs have 68 points, which left them four points behind Buffalo for eighth in the East prior to Wednesday’s play. For the scoreboard watchers, Carolina, with 71 points, was playing host to Atlanta.

A year ago, the Flyers and the Canadiens snuck in with 88 points but that’s a low total. Over the past few seasons, somewhere between 90 and 94 has been the number, so it’s a moving target. Safe to say that the Leafs will need a minimum of 18 points (to get them to 86) and more likely 22 or more over those final 15 games.

Granted, it has been by far their most productive run of the season, but over their previous 15 games, the Leafs have piled up 22 points (on a 10-2-3 run) to at least make the playoffs a discussion point. A three-game losing streak at any point, however, would push the mute button.

To their credit, the Leafs realize that many more efforts like Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders will stifle the talk rather quickly.

“These are the most important games of the year coming up,” struggling Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said on Wednesday. “(The Islanders) outplayed us for the majority of the game and we’re the ones fighting for a spot. We should be the team that is desperate and fighting harder.”

It doesn’t take deep analysis to determine that if the Leafs don’t get a better effort from their top six forwards than what was shown on Long Island, they will struggle to win games. Without goals from Tim Brent and defenceman Keith Aulie’s first in the NHL, the Leafs would have returned home without even a single point against a team below them in the standings.

Never one to wait too long to shuffle his lines within a game, Leafs coach Ron Wilson had two new units on display for Wednesday’s practice at the MasterCard Centre. Included was a top line loaded with the team’s top three goal-scorers — Phil Kessel (27), Mikhail Grabovski (25) and Nikolai Kulemin (25).

The defacto second unit, then, was an all-Western Canadian line of Bozak between wingers Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul.

“I think it is important (to change the lines up occasionally),” said Kessel, who could single-handedly keep the team in the race if he gets on another hot streak. “Sometimes lines get a little stale out there. You need a change every once and a while.

“Our third and fourth lines were going good (against the Islanders on Tuesday) and our others weren’t, so we’ve got to figure something out. And our power play wasn’t working great again.”

Ah, yes, the power play.

After going 0-for-3 against the Islanders with just two shots on net with the extra man, the Leafs are now a big fat zero for their past 24 power-play attempts. Generally goal-challenged to begin with, if the Leafs keep this up, they will make it that much harder on themselves, if they don’t start getting some production.

“It’s going to win you games,” Bozak said of the power play. “We have to have a little more urgency when we go to the net. It seems like when we get on the power play, we don’t play with as much grit and intensity as we do when we’re five-on-five.”

Another challenge in the race is that the three teams directly in front of the Leafs are loaded with arguably three of the top goaltenders in the NHL right now. In Buffalo, it’s Ryan Miller while Carolina has Cam Ward and the New York Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist.

The Leafs, meanwhile, are committed to riding the hot (and thankfully not damaged) hand of rookie James Reimer. The big Manitoban has been a major part of the team’s big post all-star break surge, but can he continue to hang with the big boys under the weight of a playoff chase?

Continuing with Thursday’s date with the Flyers — Game 2 of seven games in 12 nights run against Eastern Conference opponents — the long-shot chase continues.

And as long as they remain in the hunt, there aren’t enough fingers and toes in the Leafs dressing room to count how many times you will hear that each of those 15 remaining games is the biggest of the season.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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