WASHINGTON - Here’s the clincher.
Whether it’s a blowout win like Saturday’s effort against Montreal or a narrow victory on an off night like the Leafs had Monday against the New Jersey Devils, the points continue to pile up.
And now, it seems, Randy Carlyle’s crew has taken almost all of the stress out of their bid for a playoff spot.
It won’t come easily against the red-hot Capitals here tonight, but with a victory and some help out of town, the Leafs could clinch their first post-season spot in eight seasons.
A Toronto win and regulation loss by the Jets to Tampa Bay would get the Leafs in with two weeks to spare before a playoff opener. The Leafs play has been so strong lately that Winnipeg is the only team outside of the playoff picture that could still catch them. Led by a streaking Phil Kessel and confident James Reimer in net, Toronto has won five consecutive games to put themselves on the brink of the post-season and the breathing room that goes with it.
With a late-night flight to the U.S. capital following Monday’s 2-0 win over the Devils, Carlyle scrapped the team’s morning skate today to rest for the Capitals who have won seven in a row and have piled up a 13-3-1 record since Feb. 8 to take control of the Southeast Division.
Leading the way is Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 27th goal of the season this past weekend to lead the NHL in that category. In his past 17 games, Ovechkin has 18 goals and eight assists and throughout his career has been a Leafs killer, piling up 44 points in 29 career games.
The Leafs won the two earlier meetings with the Caps this season, back when the team was struggling.
“They are obviously playing with a lot more confidence,” Caps coach Adam Oates said of the Leafs this week. “They do a lot of things well. It’s probably one of those things where (former general manager) Brian Burke doesn’t get credit, because that’s his team.”
If the Leafs don’t clinch tonight, they’ll get two more opportunities this week - Thursday at home against the New York Islanders and Saturday in Ottawa. The earlier they clinch, the better chance the Leafs will have to rest and prepare for their first trip to the playoffs since 2004. To that end, the team could spend as long as five days in the Sunshine State where they face Florida and Tampa Bay next week.