Opponents Revving Up For Leafs

TORONTO (Jan. 11) — We can stack on another reason, for now, why the Toronto Maple Leafs — after a 1–7–2 October — have no chance of making the playoffs. As evidenced in recent losses to the New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, rival teams are starting to kick it up a notch against the Blue and White. This doesn’t guarantee victory, as the Kings were hanging on by a thread in the late going at Staples Center last Thursday. But, it adds another layer of difficulty to an already–improbable quest.

And, today came word that the Maple Leafs leading scorer, James van Riemsdyk (29 points in 40 games), will be sidelined six–to–eight weeks with a non–displaced fracture in his left foot. Which is unfortunate for JVR.

Respect has to be earned in professional sport and the Maple Leafs have done a fair amount of earning the past two months. But, it would hardly be a local tragedy if respect leads to fewer wins and points in the second half of the season. Leaf zealots will be moaning louder than ever should their team reside in no–man’s land for the National Hockey League draft next June — that oh–so familiar territory between an elite–lottery and top–12 pick. The Leafs have been there numerously in the post–2005 lockout era (often without a first–round selection) and the club hasn’t yet made the playoffs in a full 82–game schedule. No such chatter was evident prior to this season and the Maple Leafs — despite a feeble roster — have proven they will not lose “on purpose.” A few more “accidental” defeats will, however, come in handy down the road.

16-leafs-sharksedited-XTHE SAN JOSE SHARKS DID LOTS OF CELEBRATING AROUND JONATHAN BERNIER ON SATURDAY NIGHT DURING A 7–0 ROUT OF THE MAPLE LEAFS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA. Kyle Terada USA TODAY Sports

Again, for those fantasizing over a 95–point season, I caution you about the first month of the schedule. Be it the Leafs or any other team, garnering four out of 20 points in October equals early playoff elimination in the three–point–game era. It was written in one of the newspapers today that Leafs are “five points from being in the NHL’s top 20 and having a legitimate shot at a wild-card spot.” Sure… if Carolina, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Boston do not match up against one another in the second half of the season… and, if these clubs lose all of their remaining encounters with the Maple Leafs in regulation time. That would guarantee a “top–20” finish. But, neither will happen. Three–point games and the unbalanced NHL schedule make it all–but impossible for a team to recover from such a dreadful start.

As of today, the Leafs are eight points removed from a Wild Card playoff berth — with the aforementioned seven teams to catch in the Eastern Conference. Ain’t gonna happen. Neither is it important.

Keep your eye on the prize, Leafs Nation. Consider the good, young prospects the club has accumulated; envision another top–four or five pick next June, and bear your sight three years down the road. That’s the so–called “Shanaplan.” And, it’s a solid plan — one from which the Maple Leafs must not veer.

While in California last week, Mike Babcock told reporters that nothing accomplished so far this season has changed the club’s blueprint. No words could echo more significantly for fans of the hockey club. This is a year — as planned — to sell off roster components at the trade deadline and to make room for part of the future next season. That means if a first or second–round pick is offered for Leo Komarov, you make the deal on Feb. 29. In my view, the lone “untouchable” is Morgan Rielly. Anyone else that can fetch the Maple Leafs reasonable value two or three years from now should be in play at the trade deadline. And, beyond.

16-leafs-ducksedited-XTHE LEAFS BEGAN THEIR CALIFORNIA ROAD TREK WITH AN IMPRESSIVE 4–0 VICTORY OVER RYAN GETZLAF AND THE ANAHEIM DUCKS LAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Debora Robinson Getty Images

Babcock and his players deserve full credit for over–achieving in the first half of the schedule — if 27th place in the standings can be considered as such. There is no quit in this year’s team. But, the roster isn’t deep enough; the goaltending not reliable enough to contend for a playoff berth. As San Jose demonstrated on Saturday, opponents are beginning to take note of the Leafs’ willingness to compete.

The second half will therefore be tougher than the first.

THAT ANGRY CAT: Oh, to be a Panther in professional sport. First, it was Carolina of the National Football League reeling off 14 consecutive wins before finishing at 15–1. Now, it is Florida of the NHL pulling a “Golden State” and beginning to threaten the longest win streak in hockey annals. A 2–1 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton Sunday night was Florida’s 12th in succession (since Dec. 12). No team has ever turned such a trick after missing the playoffs the previous year. The NHL Panthers have equaled the fourth-longest win streak of all–time — Boston’s 12–gamer from Mar. 2–22, 2014. Next up is the 14–game streaks shared by the 1929–30 Bruins and the 2009–10 Washington Capitals. Fifteen consecutive wins were accomplished by the 1981–82 New York Islanders and the 2012–13 Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL–record run of 17 victories is still held by the Penguins, from Mar. 9 to Apr. 10, 1993 — a stretch that coincided with Mario Lemieux’s remarkable return from cancer treatment. Florida needs five to draw even with the ’92–93 Pens. Its schedule: Tonight at Vancouver. Wednesday at Calgary. Sunday at Tampa Bay. Next Monday at home to Edmonton. And, a week Friday (Jan. 22) at home to Chicago. Imagine if the Panthers are one game shy of the mark and have to defeat Patrick Kane and Co. to draw even… The Golden State Warriors established a National Basketball Association record by winning their first 24 games this season and 28 overall, dating to the end of last season. A loss at Milwaukee, Dec. 12, ended the Warriors’ chance to equal the NBA mark of 33 consecutive triumphs — still held by the Los Angeles Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West between Nov. 5, 1971 and Jan. 9, 1972. Coincidentally, that streak also ended in Milwaukee, against the Bucks.

V…V…V…V…VIKINGS LOSE: Was it cold in Minneapolis on Sunday? Isn’t it always cold in Minneapolis on Jan. 10? TV on both sides of the border covered the third–most–frigid game recorded in NFL history as the Minnesota Vikings lost a gut–wrencher to the Seattle Seahawks, 10–9, when kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip–shot field goal with 22 seconds left. At kick–off just after Noon Central, the temperature at TCF Bank Stadium was minus–6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus–21 Celsius). It “warmed” up to zero F (minus–17.8 C) in the fourth quarter. This terrific shot of fans from the NBC telecast requires no further description:

FSCN9830edited-XLONG ODDS, BUT… Given that Kansas City hasn’t lost a game since Oct. 18 — reeling off 11 consecutive victories, including a 30–0 road destruction of the Houston Texans in Saturday’s Wild Card playoff — it isn’t impossible to envision the Chiefs upsetting New England next weekend and, perhaps, appearing in the Super Bowl as AFC champion. Then there’s the Green Bay Packers — left for dead before Aaron Rodgers’ commanding performance at Washington on Sunday. Can the Packers avenge an embarrassing 38–8 spanking by the Cardinals a couple of weeks ago by winning their divisional playoff in Arizona? If so, it would require a monumental upset over Carolina in the NFC Championship — assuming the Panthers get by Seattle next Sunday. Point is: With two playoff rounds left, there remains a possibility that Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif. on Feb. 7 could be a repeat of Super Bowl I in Los Angeles, Jan. 15, 1967, when Bart Starr and the Packers drubbed Lenny Dawson and the Chiefs, 35–10, before 61,946 at the L.A. Coliseum.

16-starredited-XBART STARR BARKS OUT SIGNALS DURING SUPER BOWL 1 AT LOS ANGELES IN JANUARY 1967.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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