Is it panic time for the Maple Leafs after hitting their longest losing streak of the season at the most inopportune time?
If the clear lack of competitiveness isnít turned around soon, it could eventually become lethal to their playoff hopes, a prospect that as recently as 10 days ago seemed to be a positive expectation.
Incredibly, given the ugly aesthetics of recent losses to the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, the Eastern Conference competition has actually been rather forgiving to the Leafs over the past week. No matter what happens Wednesday night in Edmonton, they will wake up in Vancouver on Thursday morning still holding down the eighth and final spot in the East (least?)
Toronto gets no credit for the positioning, however, as teams ranked eight, nine and 10 in the conference had a combined losing streak of eight games before Wednesdayís play and collectively had dropped 12 of their past 16 contests.
The tardiness in what is supposed to be the early stages of the playoff race has certainly lowered the projection for what it will take to make it into the top eight. Since the lockout, the common range has been between 92 and 94 points with a low of 88 in 2009-10 when both the Philadelphia Flyers and Habs snuck in at that number.
Prior to their date with the Oilers the Leafs werenít just on a four-game losing streak, they seemed to be rattled of late, alarmingly sloppy on defence and worrisome in net leading to the two recent blowout losses, 5-1 to Calgary and 5-0 to Montreal.
But in an era where such a run can cause irreparable damage, Ron Wilsonís team may have dodged a bullet as eighth place is essentially still theirís to lose. It wonít necessarily stay that way forever, but other teamsí struggles has kept the Leafs in a position of strength.
Hereís a closer look at the teams holding down the sixth through 10th spots in the Eastern Conference with an emphasis on the struggles of those ranking below the seventh-place Senators.
6. New Jersey. 68 points in 56 games. On pace for 99.
Remember 10 days or so ago when the Leafs were looking at chasing down teams above them? Other than the Senators, that seems a reach now. They may catch whoever wins the Southeast Division, but it wonít matter because the playoff berth is automatic.
7. Ottawa. 66 points in 59 games. On pace for 92.
When the Leafs shut out the Sens 5-0 in their own barn on Feb. 4, it looked grim for coach Paul MacLeanís crew. It was part of a seven-game losing streak for Ottawa, but the team has bounced back with five points in their past three games to take advantage of the Leafsí slipup.
8. Toronto. 62 points in 57 games (prior to Wednesday.) On pace for 89.
Itís becoming a challenge to track the highs and lows of this team, despite the fact they looked to be in a comfortable position for much of the season. Thanks to the bumbling of those chasing, the season wonít be lost on this three-game Western Canada road trip, but life is about to get interesting if there isnít a form reversal soon.
9. Washington. 61 points in 56 games. On pace for 89.
There seems to be a common sentiment that at some point the Caps are going to wake up and go on a run making them a shoo-in for a spot and putting Southeast Division leader Florida in the position of being chased. Instead, the Caps have lost four of their past five and missed a great opportunity to make up ground on the Leafs.
10. Winnipeg. 58 points in 58 games. On pace for 82.
Another team on a two-game losing streak (and four of their past six), Tuesdayís 3-1 loss to the Islanders was particularly aggravating because it came at home. Operating on a schedule tailored for the Atlanta Thrashers, the Jets are in tough because of travel alone. An eight-game homestand starting on Friday will write their story.
WHO WANTS IN?
It hasnít exactly been a sprint lately for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference as based on current projections, 90 points at seasonís end may be enough. The players:
Position Team Games Points
7. Senators 59 66
Can they continue over-achieving ways?
8. Leafs 57 62
Confidence and intensity has been waning.
9. Caps 56 61
Apparently Bruce Boudreau wasnít the problem.
10. Jets 58 58
These guys are no road warriors.
11. Islanders 56 56
Hanging around the fringes.
12. Canadiens 57 55
Canít see them making a run.
13. Lightning 56 54
Were they really Conference finalists?
14 Sabres 56 54
But they have a fancy new dressing room.