As we enter mid March the Toronto Maple Leafs have once again put together a run that has seen them tease their fans with the thought of playoff hockey in 2008. Since February 2nd The Leafs have managed to put together a run of 10-5-0-1 and as of the end of play tonight sit six points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with thirteen games left to play. With that being said Maple Leaf fans can generally be placed in one of two categories. There are the fans that hunger for playoff hockey and are cheering on this run with fingers and toes crossed hoping their team can pull out the almost improbable of comebacks and take over the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Then there are the fans that are hoping this is all just a mirage and will come to a crashing end very soon and the Leafs will find a way to finish dead last securing the best shot at winning what is becoming the Steve Stamkos lottery, something that at this point would seem just about as improbable. As a Leaf fan I must admit to being in the middle of those two groups. There is this part of me that would love to see the Leafs playing in the playoffs as it feels like forever since I have had that experience, but at the same time there is the part of me that knows an eighth place finish and a likely first round playoff exit leaves the Leafs with little chance to draft a potential star and make moves to improve for the future and build a team that will be able to set goals that include winning a Stanley Cup instead of just making a fruitless eighth seed playoff appearance. Looking at the circumstances that currently surround the Leafs the part of me that is rooting for them to fail in their playoff bid is inevitably going to be the one that wins this battle……Sorry fans in group one.
The first thing that could potentially hold the Leafs back is the team itself. There are a lot more uncertainties with this team then there are certainties when it comes to the current Leaf roster. Despite the Leafs success since the beginning of February this Leafs team is basically the same team that won only 20 of its first 59 games minus Wade Belak, Chad Kilger and Hal Gill. These players were never a part of the core of the team but they were guys that had experience and provided depth and trading them forces the Leafs to count on younger unproven and inexperienced players to fill the void. So far it’s worked out for them but over a longer period of time they might not be as fortunate. That brings us to the “stars” of the team mainly Mats Sundin, Vesa Toskala and Nik Antropov. Mats caused quite the stir in Leaf nation when he decided against waiving his no trade clause but at the same time has been on fire since. As nice as it’s been to see him revive himself and the team along with him one has to wonder if he will be able to keep this pace up going forward. It was only last season that the Leafs were closing in on the final playoff spot and Mats completely fell of the map as he didn’t have a goal in the final three weeks of the season. A collapse like that effectively would end any hope the Leafs have of making the playoffs altogether. Next on the list is Vesa Toskala. Toskala is quickly becoming the best pick up John Ferguson made during his tenure as the Leafs GM as he has also been playing amazing since the beginning of February. Toskala has started the last 20 games for the Leafs and if he ends up starting every game for the rest of the year he will have started 33 straight games. When compared to Martin Brodeur for example, this might not seem like much but when you consider the fact that he has never started more then 38 games in an entire year prior to this season it is a huge jump in workload which increases the chance of him burning out before the Leafs reach the finish line. You also have to consider the fact that he suffered a groin injury earlier in the year which as history has proven is an injury that can come back at any time. The Leafs may be playing with fire by not being able to give him any rest because they can’t afford to lose which means they can’t afford to chance putting Andrew Raycroft in net. Last but not least is Nik Antropov. Antropov is having a career year with his 26 goals and is on a pace that could see him finish with between 30 and 35, quite the feat considering his previous career high was 24. The problem with Antropov is he tends to be injury prone and although he has managed to play all but three games this year, there is always that chance as the games become tighter checking and more physical with the playoff push that something could go wrong. You also have to factor in that he has played with Sundin for most of the season and if Mats was to go into any kind of slump it’s almost inevitable that he would take Antropov down with him.
Lets for a second pretend that Sundin, Toskala and Antropov are all able to continue there strong play the rest of the way and the rest of the team is able to be a strong supporting cast for them, you just have to look at the remaining schedule and it’s easy to see that the Leafs could be in big trouble. The Leafs have 13 games left against 7 different teams which they have a combined record of 12-19 against this season. Of these games the Leafs play two against the Philadelphia Flyers who hold the eighth and final playoff spot and are 0-2 against them head to head this year. It’s almost safe to say that if they don’t win both of these games it will be next to impossible to catch them by the end of the year. In the ninth spot are the Buffalo Sabres who the Leafs play three more times and sport an only slightly better 2-3 record against this season. The Sabres could very well over take the Flyers by seasons end making the three head to head match ups must win situations as well. To round out the schedule the Leafs play Ottawa, Montreal and Boston twice each as well as the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders once each. These are all teams that as of right now are fighting for either a playoff spot or home ice advantage in the playoffs and are going to give the Leafs everything they have so there are no easy wins to be had against these teams.
In closing the Leafs have given us something to cheer for and at least a glimmer of hope for post season hockey, but with the ability of Sundin, Antropov and Toskala to keep up their current pace in question and a very tough schedule ahead of them the Leafs have just as good if not a better chance of finishing this year with a top five draft pick then making an appearance in this years Stanley Cup playoffs.