This is one winter when the Maple Leafs donít want to see much climate change.
If their peculiarly punctual record of showing up for games played after Feb. 1 holds true, then Brian Burke can order playoff tickets printed and Ron Wilson might see his extension year play out instead of cashed out.
Though not in the top eight of the Eastern Conference at the all-star break (call it a three-way tie for seventh to be kind) the Leafs stand at 25-19-5, or 12 more points than at this time last year. Gaining as few as 39 of the available 66 points starting next week would put them in striking distance of a playoff spot, based on the Rangers qualifying with 94 last season. And the winter/spring of 2011 was the Leafsí most encouraging under Burke/Wilson, a mark of 18-9-6.
As the accompanying chart shows, the Leafs have a .500 or better record in getting maximum points in every season since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Unfortunately, let the evidence show theyíve also missed the post-season dance all of those years, including once on the last day of the schedule.
Pick from a number of theories why it has happened:
* Last year, James Reimer walked in the steps of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Martin Gerber and J.S. Aubin, fresh goaltenders who came from nowhere and stood on their heads. With the long awaited stability in net, other facets that were hurting since October fell back into place. Reimer ended up one of the NHLís top rookies in 2010-11, when he played almost exclusively down the stretch.
* When the Leafs get so far behind the pack, other teams tend to take them less seriously. Itís the perfect ambush scenario and the opposition often walks right into it.
* At some stage, all the media bashing the Leafs receive for their first-half follies becomes beating a dead horse. The knives are put away, expectations are lowered and players who donít thrive in pressure often come back to life.
* Once unhappy or unwanted players are moved out (Burke usually makes significant roster moves in late January or early February), a few farmhands are called up. They often perform well above their heads in hopes of sending a message to management for next season. Cases in point in 2011 were Reimer, Jay Rosehill, Joey Crabb, Darryl Boyce and Keith Aulie.
And as far as the veterans are concerned, the passing of the trade deadline usually brings peace of mind.
* Though the Leafs havenít seen playoff fever taken to its final stage, the thought of squeezing into eighth spot with a late push gives the team something to grasp at in the final weeks, a unity of purpose. Thatís part of the reason why Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle and the like wanted to stay around rather than accept deadline trades. They never lost hope of a miracle finish. Where many teams simply give up in the closing weeks, the Leafs usually keep the flame burning until the last week of the schedule. On the flip side, the late charges often led to lower draft standing.
This year, however, the Leafs might not have to worry about the draft lottery. They navigated the first half without losing more than three in a row, survived two long and potential stifling homestands, could be 100% healthy after the break and their netminding is more reliable. If second-half history holds, so should a playoff spot.
Great Guns post Groundhog Day
Leafsí record the past six years after Feb. 1
Year W L OTL Pts
2010-11 18 9 6 42
2009-10 13 10 3 29
2008-09 15 12 5 35
2007-08 16 11 2 34
2006-07 15 10 5 35
2005-06 16 11 3 35
Totals 93 63 24 210