The wind at your back.
The wind in your face.
Those are the two scenarios the Maple Leafs find themselves contemplating as they head to what may be their most crucial stretch of hockey.
The seventh-place Leafs, owners of 47 Eastern Conference points, visit the 45-point Carolina Hurricanes, Thursday. The next night’s opposition: the Washington Capitals, own 46 points.
The math says by Saturday morning the Leafs, sitting somewhere in the post season top eight all season long and nine gaudy points above the eighth spot on Halloween, might be perched on the porch and not in the party come Saturday.
The Maple Leafs play five games in seven nights. The rubber is hitting the road.
The standings, of course, only matter on the final day but there is no disputing the Leafs, grounded by two humiliating losses after the Winter Classic victory in Detroit, are no lock for the post season. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for last season’s 57 points in 48 games. Right now, the Leafs have 47 points in 44 games.
Hockey players are like everyone else only more so. Being behind the playoff pace, even if the only meaningful deadline is months away, wears players down.
“You have to be aware of the standings and where we are at,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “We want to keep moving up. Points keep getting tougher and tougher to get. We know that, we expect that, we’ve got to raise our game because this is a time of year the speed, the intensity picks up and the points get that much bigger.”
“There are constant little tests throughout the season and we are facing one right now,” said defenceman Mark Fraser. “You need to stay in the playoff spot because it really makes it easier to set up things for the year. You need to achieve those goals. It’s never easy to make ground back up”
The team’s depth in net would come in very handy right now.
James Reimer seems the better bet to make is first start in eight games in Carolina.
“Right now with back to back games, one guy is going to play one night and one guy is probably going to play the other night unless someone pitches a shutout,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. That seems a little unlikely, the Leafs goals against is 2.93, the 21st best in the league and that number is abetted by penalty kill numbers, which at 27th, seems reminiscent of the Ron Wilson days.
Still, there are bright spots. David Clarkson and Carl Gunnarsson, should be back in the lineup in Carolina. Carlyle liked the game delivered by newcomer Tim Gleason so depth on the blueline should be bolstered. As well, the Leafs demoted Peter Holland in favor of Carter Ashton who, while less skilled than Holland, brings a welcome measure of size.
Tyler Bozak has been a revelation thanks to an eight-game (three goals, eight assists) scoring streak.
What ails the Leafs isn’t very mysterious. They miss David Bolland prodigiously. When he went out with a severely lacerated ankle tendon, the Leafs were 10-4-0. Since then they have stumbled to an 11-14-5 slate. Unable to ice his best penalty killer and top checking forward, Carlyle, a master of the matchup, is light on timber and that won’t change soon: Bolland hasn’t begun skating.
What the Leafs need, and drastically, is the premier goaltending that defined most of their season, more production from the inspiring but statistically insignificant Clarkson and, perhaps most significantly, drastic maturation from one player who can make the team’s defensive shortcomings and offensive misfires disappear in one night: defenceman Jake Gardiner.