Wakey, Wakey Howie

TORONTO (Dec. 31) — The enduring ineptitude of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post–2005 lockout era overwhelmed my scattered brain–cells while penning a blog here on Dec. 21.

Perhaps the onset of the winter solstice numbed my neurotransmitters.

Or, more than likely, I just blew it.

With the Maple Leafs a distant 10 points out of Wild Card playoff territory in the Eastern Conference after 31 games, I suggested they were all–but assured of becoming the first National Hockey League entrant to miss the post–season 11 consecutive times in a full (non–lockout) schedule. This, of course, could still happen; nor would it ring close to 10 on the shock meter. So accustomed am I, however, to a Leaf–less spring that I completely overlooked the notion of a Top 3 finish in the Atlantic Division, which would annul the Wild Card process and automatically qualify the team for the Stanley Cup tournament.

As such, all of you may now offer me a resounding and richly–earned “well, d’uh!”

While sandwiching the NHL’s Christmas break with a season–high four consecutive wins, the Leafs today find themselves only three points behind Boston for that coveted No. 3 hole in the Division (with three games in hand on the Bruins). And — gulp! — a mere five points in back of second–place Ottawa for home–ice advantage in the first playoff round. Heck, even the back–door is now open, as Toronto has halved its Wild Card deficit; currently trailing Philadelphia by five points (with only Tampa Bay situated in–between).

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Now, in defense of my brain–cells, we have been here before. And, recently.

Less than three years ago — in March 2014 — the Maple Leafs were threatening to leapfrog all Northeast opposition on the cusp of a 14–3–3 power–move in 20 games. Then came a disastrous decision by coach Randy Carlyle, who allowed the scorching Jonathan Bernier to play against his former team in Los Angeles while freshly nursing a groin injury. Bernier struggled through 20 minutes at the Staples Center and was replaced by James Reimer. He missed five consecutive matches — all of which the Leafs lost in regulation time — and the season crumbled. Toronto finished 2–12–0 and well beyond playoff consideration.

In the first week of February 2012, the Maple Leafs were similarly gunning for a home–ice berth in the opening Stanley Cup round with a nifty 28–19–6 record for 62 points after 53 games.

Then came the second week of February.

Ron Wilson, currently recovering from a stroke (robustly, we pray), would wish to forget the ensuing 1–9–1 pratfall (also known as Brian Burke’s “18–wheeler”) that prompted the Mar. 2 switch to Carlyle.

By season’s end — with a 7–18–4 nosedive in their final 29 games — the Leafs were a rumor.

So, perhaps we mightn’t get too carried away on New Year’s Eve with a four–game surge.

To their credit, however, the Leafs are doing to others what had recently been done to them — preying on the weak; the meek, the disorganized and the injured. Victories before the break at Colorado and Arizona occurred against, unequivocally, the two worst teams in the NHL. Then came overtime wins against Florida (beset by front–office turmoil) and Tampa Bay (having sustained the most–severe loss of any club to long–term disability: Steven Stamkos). Eight points in four games has propelled the Leafs into a somewhat–rarefied position in the Eastern Conference.

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THE LEAFS ARE COMING OFF AN O.T. WIN AT TAMPA ON THURSDAY. CHRIS O’MEARA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The club is also in the midst of a wonderful schedule break, with only four games in 20 days from Dec. 24 to Jan. 12. And, with only one significant malady to report as we near the half–season mark — an upper–body ailment that prevented Tyler Bozak from making the Denver–Phoenix trip (also timely, given that me, you and a couple of neighbors could knock off the Avalanche and Coyotes). But, the schedule gains big–time momentum starting next Friday at Newark, when the Leafs play the Devils to begin a stretch of eight games in 14 nights. It includes the start of the longest Leafs road trip of the season — to Detroit, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis, Boston and the Islanders (Jan. 25–Feb. 6, interrupted by the All–Star break in Los Angeles).

So, there’s lots of hockey to be played and lots of proving to be done before the Leafs and their followers can celebrate an official end to the decade–long playoff drought in a full NHL schedule.

Near–perfect health to key performers must also somehow endure.

That said, nothing excuses my brain–cramp in this corner from ten days ago.

WHO’D A THUNK IT? Imagine the game–of–the–year in the NHL involving the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. Not many would have… until very recently. Tonight, however, the two hottest teams in league history clash at the Xcel Energy Center. That’s right: the two hottest teams ever at the same time in the NHL. The Blue Jackets and Wild have combined to win their past 26 games — 14 consecutively by Columbus; 12 by Minnesota. Neither has lost since the Wild dropped a 3–2 shootout decision at Calgary on Dec. 2 (Columbus was last–defeated at Florida, Nov. 26, also in penalty shots). It marks the first time in NHL annals that clubs with a minimum win–streak of 12 games are clashing in the regular season. And, coincidentally, it involves the two most–recent expansion entries — the Wild and Blue Jackets joining the NHL for the 2000–01 season. It should make for a rollicking New Year’s Eve in downtown St. Paul.

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AND, WITH BLOG NO. 149 OF 2016, I WISH YOU AND YOURS…

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