By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 31) – Many times, in this corner, I have talked about how streaks become so critical in the National Hockey League of the 2000’s, where just more than half of 30 teams qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The context, here, has often been why a dismal two or three-week stretch in the post-2005 lockout era (as per this Oct. 23, 2013 blog: 1a6zihq) demolished playoff aspiration for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The opposite, however, is just as compelling. And, that’s where the Leafs have finally turned the corner in this up-and-down season.
Two streaks – 10-4-0 in October and 8-1-1 in their past 10 games – should be enough to put Leafs in the playoffs for a second consecutive spring. That’s an 18-5-1 mark over 24 games. Virtually any club so proficient in nearly one-third of the NHL schedule should be among 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup. Put another way, it would take a remarkable post-Olympic collapse – yes, an 18-wheeler – for the Leafs to fall out of playoff contention. It isn’t going to happen.
Oh, sure, there will be peaks and valleys during the club’s final 26 games. Leafs, as we all realize, never do things easily. Even Thursday night’s 6-3 Air Canada Centre romp over Florida began ominously, with Panthers bolting in front, 2-0, and reviving images of that ghastly performance, Dec. 17, which sent Randy Carlyle into between-period hysterics on an HBO 24/7 episode. Ultimately – and quickly in the second period – Leafs got their act together and breezed to win No. 29 on the season. They sit comfortably in Eastern Conference playoff territory by six points – occupying, for the moment, a guaranteed third-place seeding in the Atlantic Division (three points behind second-place Tampa Bay). A good spot with one-third of the schedule remaining.
AFTER A SLOW START – INCLUDING THIS GOAL BY NICK BJUGSTAD ON JONATHAN BERNIER TO OPEN THE SCORING – MAPLE LEAFS OVERWHELMED FLORIDA PANTHERS, 6-3, AT AIR CANADA CENTRE THURSDAY NIGHT. TORONTO IS 8-1-1 IN ITS PAST 10 GAMES. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Nazem Kadri is playing well. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are in the line-up every night, regardless of youthful missteps, and Jonathan Bernier – in spite of Carlyle’s quick trigger-finger – is undeniably the team’s No. 1 goaltender. Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have awakened after a lengthy snooze (particularly the latter two) and are now among the NHL’s hottest forward units. Tim Gleason has come close, on several occasions, to being decapitated, but his willingness to go “dirty” has been an immeasurable help to Leafs since the New Year’s Day acquisition from Carolina. The blue-line – after a poor first half, offensively – is contributing on the scoreboard to a level expected from a group that includes Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Gardiner and Rielly. After the 8-1-1 streak, and for whatever it’s worth, Leafs sit 11th overall in the NHL standings – three points in back of eighth and four points ahead of 15th. Fans are leaving the ACC happily.
Which brings us to another message pounded upon regularly in this corner: The importance of home-ice domination. On Jan. 15 – at the halfway mark of the schedule – I wrote this blog: KjpVi0. Leafs were a pedestrian 15-10-1 at the ACC. Four wins later, the club is starting to craft a home mark reminiscent of a true playoff contender. The 19 victories on Bay St. are the most since 2006-07 and with 12 home dates remaining, Leafs should easily threaten the all-time club mark of 26 wins in a full regular season (under Pat Quinn in 2005-06).
Of psychological import are the four remaining games until the Olympic break. Leafs host Ottawa tomorrow night; play at Tampa (Tuesday) and Florida (Thursday), before wrapping up at home against Vancouver next Saturday. It will be 19 nights until the club plays again – at New York Islanders on Feb. 27. That’s an awfully long time to chew on a pre-Olympic downturn. Leafs have to maintain some momentum before the pucks drop in Sochi. Then the “real” season will begin.
28 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK
As part of my continuing series looking at old publications, here are pages of THE HOCKEY NEWS from 28 years ago this week (Jan. 31, 1986). You will see, among other things, that individual offensive numbers were a wee-bit higher back then:
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