Forget seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
They’ve had a taste of a potential playoff spot for most of the regular season, but the Maple Leafs aren’t happy with just a nibble.
With the second half of the 2011-12 regular season beginning Tuesday night when the Buffalo Sabres visit the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs are prepared to go after the main course.
“This is not about maintaining seventh spot, this is about getting home-ice advantage (by ending in the top four),” coach Ron Wilson said after practice at the MasterCard Centre on Monday. “We’re only a few wins away from that. Our focus would be to keep climbing the ladder.
“It’s how you protect yourself, instead of spending all day looking in the mirror.”
One large difference from this time year ago, when the Leafs had nine fewer points than the 47 they have now: They have a grip on their destiny, and if they can reach a total of 47 points again in the following 41 games, a post-season berth for the first time since 2004 should be waiting for them on Easter weekend.
“We absolutely control what we do in the second half, without a doubt,” Wilson said. “We just have to keep marching along at home, play a little better than .500 on the road, and you should be able to take care of business.”
For the Leafs to do that, the top line of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul flanking Tim Connolly will have to maintain its productivity. That should happen, as few NHL teams have devised a way to stop the three. Goaltending has to be sharp and the penalty kill must keep improving, but those things go without saying.
Secondary scoring also will be paramount, and the Leafs figure they have solid prospects for that in the line of Matthew Lombardi between Clarke MacArthur and Nazem Kadri. Lombardi has been back for just four games after missing 18 games with a shoulder injury, but the three have discovered chemistry with each other.
Lombardi and MacArthur have been at this NHL thing for awhile, but Kadri’s growth spurts continue. His talents with the puck have revealed themselves each game, and the staff likes the way he has been more defensively responsible.
“The coaches have done a great job of giving me confidence and try not to take away my creativity,” Kadri said. “They’re teaching me the right way to play.
“I’m aware of (making turnovers and what causes them). But in order to make those creative plays, turnovers are going to happen. I spoke to Ron about picking my spots.”
When Tyler Bozak returns from an upper-body injury — Bozak, who has missed four games and skated by himself on Monday, an indication he is about a week away — Kadri’s job could be in peril.
But Kadri, whose confidence can be refreshing while rubbing others the wrong way, isn’t concerned.
“I don’t think it’s out of my control,” Kadri said. “If anything, it is in my control. If I keep playing the way I know how, I know I will be able to contribute. I decide my own fate here and the way I do that is by the way I play. I can make the decision harder on the coaching staff, and I think they will tell you that is a good problem to have.”
Lombardi has been the benefactor of a few tape-to-tape passes from Kadri, but hasn’t scored.
“He makes so many great heads-up plays,” Lombardi said. “I have to bury a few here. We’re making some good things happen.”
Injuries have damaged the Leafs roster, but they’ve been lucky in that neither Kessel nor Lupul have been hurt. If either one is, the Lombardis, Kadris and MacArthurs of the lineup won’t have any choice but to contribute.
“We have the depth that can produce,” Lombardi said. “We know it’s going to be tight from here on out, but as a group, we have confidence in ourselves.”