Since 1967, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the phrase “there’s always next season” a part of their regular vocabulary. After 38 years of failing to achieve a Stanley Cup victory, the 2005-06 season will be no different, except for the fact that players will be teeing off a few weeks earlier this year, at a golf course near you.
The insurmountable challenge the Leafs face in making the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs is most eloquently summarized via simple arithmetic. As of Thursday, Toronto held the eleventh seed in the Eastern Conference and sat five points back of Montreal for the last playoff position. However, with 18 games remaining in the home stretch, the Leafs’ schedule looks anything but inviting.
Toronto closes out its season playing 14 of 18 games against clubs over .500, including the likes of Ottawa, Philadelphia, New York, Carolina and Buffalo. The Leafs have mounted a poor 20-24-5 record against teams in this category and would need to capitalize on two road games in Montreal in order to make a serious playoff push.
Unfortunately for Leaf fans, success on the road seems to have paralleled Tie Domi’s acting career in Chunky Soup commercials: both are short-lived, with little hope for future improvement. Toronto will be on the road for 11 of its last 18 games this season, where they possess a dismal 10-16-4 record. Two of these games include stops across the Peace Bridge at HSBC Arena, where the Buffalo Sabres have played daddy to the Leafs, holding a home record of 12-4-3 over the white and blue since 1996.
With the NHL trade deadline now a week old, Toronto General Manager John Ferguson Jr. has made a commitment to run the table with his current squad, adding only winger Alexander Suglobov and defenceman Luke Richardson at the March 9 trade deadline.
Ferguson’s actions were no surprise to this writer, as the Toronto GM seems to have a knack for signing the oldest, past-their-prime players at the last minute. Remember 2004, when the Leafs acquired Brian Leetch and Ron Francis at a combined age of 77? Like 2004, this year’s signing of 36-year-old Richardson (who turns 37 in nine days) will only help to increase the team’s average age. What’s more, Richardson has a mere seven points on the season and a plus-minus rating of -15. Accordingly, the Leaf roster remains devoid of the depth and punch required to make a serious run this late in the season. Like my housemate’s woeful attempts to get a date, the Leafs are fighting their greatest adversary of all: stiff competition and poor team chemistry.
It would be an understatement to say that Pat Quinn and his troops have had a tough year. The Maple Leafs, playing in Toronto—which is easily the centre of the hockey world and home to the most passionate NHL fans—have been under fire all year for their lacklustre play and lack of results.
Nevertheless, despite all the turmoil, the Leafs find themselves in the playoff hunt with 18 games left. First, let’s see whom the Leafs have to catch. As of March 16, they are five points behind the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, with two more head-to-head meetings.
Montreal made a huge deadline deal last week, trading goaltender Jose Theodore for Colorado’s David Aebischer. This forces Montreal to place their playoff hopes on Cristobal Huet, a goalie who has played only 79 games in his career and has never been the starter for an NHL team. While Huet has played well for Montreal, only time will tell if he can handle the pressure of leading his team into the playoffs.
The other team the Leafs are catching is the seventh-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning. Even though Tampa is six points ahead, the Leafs have two games in hand. Also, this team may be the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they haven’t played like it this year.
The league’s top sniper in 2003-04 with 94 points, Martin St. Louis, will be lucky if he hits 60 this year, and their shaky goalie tandem of John Grahame and Sean Burke have a combined save percentage of .891, a far cry from what Nikolai Khabibulin gave the Lightning in their Stanley Cup year. Tampa hasn’t looked too sharp lately either, getting bombed by Buffalo 8-5 last week as well as 5-1 by Toronto.
So with the bottom two seeds showing signs of weakness, it’s up to the Leafs to turn on all cylinders and give their best effort for the remainder of the season. Recently, Toronto has shown signs of life, suggesting they can make the playoffs. Their offence has been a spark, most recently beating Tampa 5-1 and Boston 5-4.
The comeback has been led by a resurgence in captain Mats Sundin and forward Jason Allison, who have scored seven and six points respectively in their last four games. The Leafs’ goaltending appeared to be questionable when Ed Belfour suffered a back injury that put him day-to-day, but backup Mikael Tellqvist has been solid, including a 28-save performance in the Boston shootout win.
If the Leafs continue this strong play on ice and get a little help from some other teams, they could very easily squeak into the playoffs, where we all know a new season begins. Toronto fans can then hope for what they do every spring: a repeat of the 1967 playoffs.
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