6 Wins and the Leafs are In….Maybe
Lets first take a look at the Leafs competitors for the last few spots in the East.
Atlanta Thrashers (88 points, 3rd, 1st in the Southeast)
Remaining Schedule: at Florida, Toronto, at Boston, Washington, at Carolina, Tampa Bay
While the Thrashers currently sit as the 3rd seed and the division leader in the Southeast, their lead is precarious. They have a few “easy” games against the Panthers, Bruins and Caps which they should win. If they do, that would give them 6 key points that should at least allow them to hold on to a playoff spot. They will face some tough games against desperate opponents like Carolina, Toronto and Tampa. The games versus the Canes and Bolts will determine the divsion winner and the all important home ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
NY Rangers (87 points, 6th)
Remaining schedule: at Montreal, at Philly, Toronto, at NY Islanders, Montreal, at Pittsburgh
One of the hottest teams in the NHL right now seem poised to make the playoffs. With the way they have played, they are now looking to not only keep a playoff spot but move up in the standings. 4 of their last 6 games are on the road which may prove tough for the Blueshirts. But they control their own destiny with games directly against the teams that are trying to catch them. The Rangers could be the team that eliminates the Habs, Leafs and Isles if they manage to sweep all 4 contests against those 3. They are perhaps the strongest team among those fighting for the last 3 playoff spots
Tampa Bay Lightning (86 points, 7th)
Remaining Schedule: Florida, at Carolina, Washington Carolina, Florida, at Atlanta.
Tampa Bay will enjoy 4 of their last 6 games at home where they are a better team. Also with 3 games left against Florida and Washington, they have a fairly comfortable schedule. But the team has struggled of late and their goaltending is inconsistent. They have used 3 goalies in the past week with little success. They will likely need to sweep their games against the Canes and Thrashers if they want a shot at the division title.
Carolina Hurricanes (84 points, tied for 8th)
Remaining Schedule: at Toronto, at Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Florida
The Canes do not have the easiest schedule compared to the other teams they are trying to catch/hold off. The key for them is to survive the next 5 games which 4 of them are on the road. But they’ve been hot and are looking to continue their roll. They sit only 4 points behind Atlanta for the division lead but the team in 11 place is only 2 points behind. They have a great opportunity to at least catch Tampa Bay with a home and home left against them. They also have a game in hand on both Tampa and Atlanta.
Montreal Canadiens (84 points, tied for 8th)
Remaining schedule: NY Rangers, at Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston, at NY Rangers, at Toronto
The Habs have a very difficult schedule remaining. Their back to back against the Sens and Sabres could be what breaks their back as they are very tough opponents to have on consecutive nights. Also, they have a home and home against the Rangers who are a mere 3 points ahead of Montreal. But perhaps their biggest game may come in game 82 against Toronto. This could very well decide 8th spot. They do have a game against Boston whom they beat twice just last week. Everything is up to their goalie whomever that may be.
NY Islanders (84 points, tied for 8th)
Remaining Schedule: New Jersey, at Buffalo, Ottawa, NY Rangers, Toronto, at Philly, at New Jersey
The Isles perhaps have the worst schedule left with 4 of the 7 games against 3 of the top teams in the East in New Jersey, Buffalo and Ottawa. The Isles are currently 2-9-1 against those 3 teams this year. It may prove to be tough to even split those 4 games. They also have matches against the Rangers and Leafs who they are battling for 6th, 7th and 8th.
Toronto Maple Leafs
As for the Leafs, they currently sit in 11th with 82 points. Their remaining schedule consists of: Carolina, at Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at NY Rangers, Philadelphia, at NY Islanders, Montreal
The Leafs are 11th but only 2 points from 8th. They however will likely need at least 6 wins. They have games against the teams they are specifically trying to catch with matches versus the Rangers, the Islanders, Carolina and Montreal. While they have a game against Philly who they have dominated in their last two matches, the games against Atlanta and Pittsburgh will not be easy. The Leafs have a game in hand and have a relatively easier schedule compared to the teams they are fighting with. Having games against these teams puts the onus completely on the Leafs. The back to back Friday night losses the past couple of weeks could be what eliminates the Leafs in the end.
It really a necessity for Toronto to at least get 12 points to put some heat on their competitors. It would not only give Toronto 94 points but also make the Leafs a bit more competitive when it comes to the tiebreakers. That is what really could decide everything.
Here is a rundown of what may happen if the Leafs get at least 12 points.
Atlanta would need 6 points in their last 6 games to get to 94. Getting those points via 3 wins would match the Leafs win total and if the 1 regulartion loss the Leafs could afford was against the Thrashers, it would be Atlanta taking that season series thus winning tiebreaker 2.
in their last 7 games to get to 94. 4 wins and 2 OT losses would result in the Leafs needing to go at worst 6-1 to at least have a tie in terms of wins. If they gave the Leafs their only affordable regulation loss that would split the season series thus bringing the tiebreaker down to goal differential. Carolina is currently on the plus side while the Leafs are in a rather deep negative in terms of goal for vis goals against.
NY Rangers would need 7 points in their last 6 games to reach 94. 3
wins and an OT loss would do it and they would match the Leafs win total in this case. They would however need to take the final game against Toronto in regulation in order to at least tie the season series. This would allow NY to use the goal differential as the tie breaker which they would have a major advantage against the Leafs.
NY Islanders would need 10 points in 7 games to reach 94. Getting those 10 points with the maximum 5 wins would not be enough for the Isles. It would leave them 1 win less than the Leafs thus causing them to lose the first tiebreaker. Therefore the Isles really need 11 points if the Leafs reached 94.
Montreal would need 10 points in their last 6 games to reach 94. Like Tampa, the Habs cannot get 10 points without passing the Leafs win total. Therefore even if tied in the standings the Habs would take the tiebreaker.
If the Leafs amass 12 points going 6-1 and get 94 points, the best they can finish is 7th if everyone else also reaches 94 points. If the Leafs get 7th, the Lightning would win the Southeast division as they would take the first tiebreaker over both Atlanta and Carolina) and the Habs would get the 6th seed in the conference. It is rather hard to fathom the Rangers and Thrashers finishing the year at no better than a .500 record in their remaining games. With the Lightning and Canadiens dominating the tiebreakers if they are tied with the Leafs, even this scenario of 12 points may not even be enough. And if you take into account the fact that the Lightning, Canes and Thrashers have games remaining against the bottomfeeders like Philly, Boston, Washington and Florida, their road to wins is much easier than Toronto.
To get 13 points Toronto needs to go 6-0-1 (95 points and 42 wins). In this case:
Atlanta would need 7 points in their last 6 games to get to 95. 3 wins and a tie would allow the Thrashers to match the Leafs in terms of wins and points. If they happened to be the team to beat the Leafs in OT, they would win the season series and thus take the tiebreaker.
Carolina would need 11 points in their last 7 games to get to 95. The Canes will need to win 5 and lose 1 in OT to beat the Leafs if tied in points. Those 5 wins will give them 1 more than Toronto thus taking the tiebreaker. At 4 wins and 3 ties in their last 7 games this would allow them to tie the Leafs in wins and points but they would not be able to beat the Leafs in the season series even if they took their final matchup in extra time (The Leafs would have a 2-1-1 record for 5 points against Carolina who would only get 4 points in the head to head).
Tampa Bay would need 9 points in their last 6 games to reach 95. No matter how they get to 9 points (4 wins and 1 OT loss or 3 wins and 3 OT losses) the Bolts will dominate the number of wins tiebreaker when tied with the Leafs in the standings.
NY Islanders would need 11 points in 7 games to reach 95. The Isles have no choice but to beat the Leafs in points. If they tie in the standings, the Isles would not have enough wins to beat them in the tiebreaker. Thus the Isles need to either go 6-1 or 5-0-2 at worst to pass the Leafs.
Montreal would need 11 points in their last 6 games to reach 95. The Habs have too many wins that the Leafs would never be able to catch them even if they were tied in points.
In this scenario where the Leafs get 13 points, the best they can still finish, if all their competitors also reach 95 points, is to finish 7th. Again the tiebreakers make the difference. While teams will need a better than .500 record, there are too many teams that are hot (like the Habs, Thrashers, Rangers, Canes) to expect them to not have a winning record in their remaining schedule. So even going almost perfect may still not be enough. It will though at least put some pressure on the competitors.
Atlanta would need 8 points in their last 6 games to get to 96. The Thrashers would need to win 4 games to get those 8 points to match the number of wins the Leafs would get which is the first tie-breaker. The team would have to split their season series (Toronto would have to beat Atlanta in their final game against eachother) meaning their tie-breaker would come down to goal differential. Right now Atlanta is at -3 while the Leafs are at -10 giving the Thrashers the advantage.
Carolina would need 12 points in their last 7 games to get to 96. If the Canes earn those 12 points with 6 wins they would tie the Leafs in points but win the first tie breaker with 44 wins, 1 more than the Leafs. They could also tie the Leafs in the standings with 5 wins and 2 OT losses which would give them the same number of wins against Toronto, but the Canes would lose the next tie-breaker which is head-to-head. Toronto, if they went 7-0 would have to beat the Canes in their final matchup and that would give them a 3-1 record against the defending champs this year.
Tampa Bay would need 10 points in their last 6 games to reach 96. Tampa, if they got 10 points, no matter how they got them, they would end up with more wins than Toronto thus giving them the tie-breaker even if they both had the same number of points. With 41 wins already, there is no way they can get to 10 points without winning at least 4 games. At 45 wins that would give them 2 more than the Leafs.
NY Rangers would need 9 points in their last 6 games to reach 96. 4 wins and a OT loss would give them the 9 points and tie Toronto for number of wins. However if Toronto were to go 7-0 they would have to beat the Rangers in their last meeting, thus giving them the season series 3-1. Therefore the Rangers cannot tie Toronto in the standings and must
get to 97 points to outlast the Leafs.
NY Islanders would need 12 points in 7 games to reach 96.The Isles could win 6 games to get those 12 points but tying Toronto is pointless as they would not have enough wins to take the first tie-breaker. So the Isles would need at least 13 points in their final 7 games to pass the Leafs.
Montreal would need 12 points in their last 6 games to reach 96. This would mean the Habs needing to go a perfect 6-0 to get the 12 points they need to reach 96. However with 1 more meeting against the Leafs, if Toronto goes a perfect 7-0, that would mean they would have lost their final matchup and thus not get the 12 points they need for 96. The best they could do is 95 in this case and thus be behind the Leafs.
Most of the tiebreakers are taken out the picture if the Leafs go a perfect 7-0. The Rangers, Habs and Isles have no choice but to get more points than the Leafs as a tie does them no good. Atlanta will need to also outright beat the Leafs in points as there is no guarantee they can beat Toronto in tiebreakers. The Canes need to be near perfect in their last 7 games to outlast the Leafs. Leaving only the Bolts as a team who has the Leafs totally dominated when it comes to tiebreakers.
With the way the Leafs have played all year, which is very up and down, Toronto will be hard pressed to be so dominant in their last 7 games. The degree of difficulty in their schedule, the inconsistent goaltending, the scoring slumps of many of their forwards, their lack of discipline make their task very daunting. But like most teams in the NHL, the Leafs are capable of going on a mini run and with some help and luck, could find themselves back in the playoffs after a 1 year absence. It will indeed be very playoff like the last two weeks as we see how the playoff picture play out.