You know this hockey season is going Brian Burke’s way when all he has to get upset about these days is this silly voting that named Dion Phaneuf the most overrated player in the NHL.
He doesn’t have to find a goalie and some able defencemen, the way Steve Yzerman must in Tampa.
He doesn’t have to unravel the layers of slop that has become the entangled embarrassment in two languages known as the Montreal Canadiens.
He doesn’t have to worry, day to day, when or if Sidney Crosby will be back and how far the Pittsburgh Penguins will be behind when and if he eventually gets to play.
He doesn’t have try and make sense of what has become of the great Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres, the NHL’s latest tribute to overspending and under-achieving.
Nope, the hockey world is unfolding just right for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a season where making the playoffs is no longer a question but a destination.
There is really only one way the Leafs don’t make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this season: And that’s if they implode themselves.
All around them, though, there is implosion. There have been few seasons like this one, with messed up teams more the norm than the exception in the East.
Yzerman’s view of the conference goes like this: You put the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers in one category — and put a blanket over just about every other team. Now let them fight it out for the other playoffs spots.
I agree with Yzerman on the Rangers and the Bruins, especially considering how well Henrik Lundqvist has played in goal in New York and the kind of leadership they had received from coach John Tortorella. The Bruins are the Stanley Cup champions and look like they have a chance to repeat.
Philadelphia, I’m not so sure about anymore, although the Flyers will be a playoff team. Ilya Bryzgalov has not been the goalie the Flyers expected to him to be in the first year of a life-long contract in Philadelphia. And with Chris Pronger out, that makes the Flyers all the more vulnerable, even with a possible Hart Trophy season from Claude Giroux.
So there is Boston and New York in the East as contenders. And then what?
Kevin Dineen’s Florida Panthers are all smoke and mirrors. They will find their level eventually and they can’t possibly keep doing what they’re doing. Oddly enough, should the Panthers win their division and the Leafs finish 6th in the standings, the most unlikely of playoff matchups between the two longest serving drought teams would occur. That’s a series the Leafs could win, even without adding whatever it is Burke plans to add in the coming weeks.
This year began with the Leafs’ ability to make the playoffs in doubt. Now, the possibility of them winning a round is not out of the question — especially if they end up playing the Panthers.
The Panthers, actually, are in more peril than the Leafs because of the somewhat improved state of the Washington Capitals. Not that the Capitals have improved much under new coach, Dale Hunter. They’re just not playing as terribly as they were under Bruce Boudreau. Should the Caps find their legs in the second half of the season — and some even slight interest in playing — they would wind up first in the Southeast Division, and that could place the Panthers in jeopardy of making the post-season.
As of Thursday, Florida was just one point up on the Leafs. There are only seven points between fifth and 10th in the conference, but again, an advantage the Leafs didn’t have in previous Ron Wilson seasons was they are not well behind and have to climb over teams in a league that allows three-point games to get to where they need to go.
So let’s pencil in Boston, New York and Philadelphia in the playoffs, and somebody from the Southeast Division.
There’s half your post-season teams. And in a battle with the surprising Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh without Crosby, Winnipeg, which can’t win on the road, and always pesky New Jersey Devils, the opportunity is there for the Leafs, like it hasn’t been in years.
The playoffs aren’t just a possibility this season.
The opportunity hasn’t been this rich in years.