When the Toronto Maple Leafs began the '09-10 season 0-7-1, it was determined that even though they were not as bad as their record indicated, the horror movie like start demonstrated they could not compete when points "mattered most". Lately, nearing the end of a 5th straight non-playoff year, the Leafs (as has been their season ending trend) have been on a tear; their 7-2-1 record in their last 10 is 3rd only to Phoenix and Detroit who are 8-1-1 respectively. Now, the same naysayers from the start of the year are speaking up again and suggesting the record does not indicate they are as "good" as their recent ascent up the standings suggests. (I know- closing in on the lofty heights of 28th, 27th, or even 25th place isn't much, but they have made gains.) The recent victories are referred to as "garbage" points- ones that lowly teams pick up at the end of the year when things don't matter (similar to a QB in football who gains yardage at the end of a blowout) The popular theory is two-fold 1) that the Leafs have nothing to play for and thus can play a bit loose, and 2) they are playing teams which may have gained a playoff spot or simply and subconsciously play down to the level of the Leafs, which in turn is the result of more victories. I tend to disagree with that. One, to say the Leafs have nothing to play for (in terms of Stanley cup hopes) as a team is true; out of the playoffs realistically since December (although there magic # is down to 1 from being eliminated mathematically), Toronto, as a team, has had only pride as its motivation. Yet, the teams they have beaten lately, (NYR, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Boston, etc have playoff aspirations to play for. Therefore, they have played teams who have been at their hungriest to win games, salivating at the chance to play for the Cup and thus have played with a playoff mentality (minus the beards). And yet, the Leafs have stifled some of these teams and prevented them from gaining valuable points. Now, ask yourself, are the Leafs showing they are truly a top 3 team who are a lock for the playoffs next year (as their last 10 games show)? Of course they aren't. And Lee Stempniak is not a 82 goal shooter as his last 12 in 12 indicates. But, they are on a roll, and it is happening at a time when points DO matter most... for the desperate teams they have beaten. Two, individually, the Leafs have more to play for than in recent years. Even though the late season charge is reminiscent of the past 3-4 years- the underlying difference here is job security. The make up of this team for '10-'11 is not determined. Barring trade, only the likes of Kessel, Grabovski, Orr, Giguere, Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchamin, and Schenn are contractual and skill or role related locks to make the team next season. Yet, The other 12-15 have a lot of diverse pressures on them. Some need to make an impression around the league in case they need to look for employment elsewhere next season as they may not be considered part of the grande plan under Burke. (Sjostrom, Primeau, Exelby, Finger, Wallin, and Lundmark fit that category) Others, such as the kids, have had to try and show they do belong with the club in some capacity (Stalberg, Caputi, Hanson, Bozak, Mitchell, and Gunnarson are all part of that 25 and under group that wants to ensure a spot at camp and doesn't want a Kadri, Paradis, Hayes, Didomenico, Hamilton or a Burke July 1st or college UFA (reportedly, he already has his sights set on a 6.5 forward by the name of Kyle Irwin) to come knocking. Only Bozak, Mitchell and Gunnarson have truly shown they are deserving of a spot on the team and it is theirs to lose at camp, while the other kids have shown a spot is theirs to win, but could find themselves as Marlies if they are outdueled at camp. Finally, the likes of Kulemin, and Gustafsson have shown they do belong but will want the money to stick around as both are pending RA's. And then there is Kaberle, but let's not go there. So, all of these players have personal agendas to up their play and most have been entirely up to the task. And, they are doing so, at a time when the pressure, individually and as a spoiler, is in fact at its greatest. So, to say the Leafs latest run is due to a lack of pressure is a theory that is as "garbage" as some suggest the Leafs victories are lately.
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