You’re not in until you’re in.
That could well be the mantra around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room these days, as even though the team has a 99.97-per-cent chance of making the postseason, they’re not discussing what the playoffs will be like until they’re actually clinched.
And they can accomplish that on Thursday night against the New York Islanders.
With the three-point games being a factor, there are all sorts of different possible outcomes, but the basics are that if the Leafs win in regulation or overtime and the Winnipeg Jets lose to the Carolina Hurricanes – even if they get the extra point – Toronto will officially be going to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
“That might be my home province, but they’re not my team that’s for sure,” James Reimer said of the Jets, the last non-playoff team that can catch the Leafs and knock them out. “If that’s what needs to happen for us to clinch, obviously it’d be great if they lose.”
Not that he wants to talk about the playoffs just yet.
“Honestly, until we’re in, I’d rather not think about it,” Reimer said. “The games we’re playing right now are exciting and I’m sure they’re going to be great come playoffs but in here we want to focus on getting in and getting home ice if possible. When that happens, then we can talk about what the playoffs are going to be like.”
“What we’ve tried to do is block out all of the this and the that,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We need to play a better brand of hockey than we did in the last six periods. Or we’re not going anywhere.”
The reality, however, is that even if Toronto loses its remaining five games, they’ll quite likely make it.
Sportsclubstats.com even gives the Leafs a better than 15-per-cent chance of earning home ice, either by winning the Northeast Division (1.7 per cent) or climbing up into fourth ahead of the struggling Montreal Canadiens (13.7 per cent).
Most likely, however, Toronto is looking at finishing fifth (63 per cent) or sixth (18 per cent), with their previous two games perhaps a warning sign that closing out these final five games won’t be easy.
The Islanders present numerous challenges, too. Only four points back of the Leafs in seventh in the East, New York has been one of the hottest teams in the league, going 9-1-2 in their last 12 games to rocket into a now surprisingly likely playoff spot (85-per-cent chance).
The Isles have finally emerged into a solid team thanks to a decent puck possession game (sixth in East in Fenwick close), an excellent power play and going 9-2-5 in one-goal games.
Add in an improved defence with the stabilizing element Lubomir Visnovsky has brought, solid goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov, underrated players like Frans Nielsen and, of course, one of the top young scorers in the game in John Tavares and this team is no laughingstock anymore.
Should they beat Toronto in this one, there’s suddenly a chance they can sneak up past the Leafs to close the year, adding some rare intrigue to a late season meeting between two franchises that have struggled for a long, long time.
- Defenceman Carl Gunnarsson remains out with a lower-body injury. Carlyle is hoping to have him available for Saturday’s game in Ottawa.
- Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin are expected to be worked back into the Leafs lineup after sitting as healthy scratches in Tuesday’s debacle in Washington. Given they have had relatively solid seasons up until recently, this was an odd decision by Carlyle, but one likely aimed at being a wake-up call more than anything. “For those two individuals, I didn’t think much was happening over a stretch of games,” Carlyle said. “Now, we’ll see their response.”
- Carlyle had a good line on Kadri after the morning skate:
“Everyone’s ready to pat him on the back and anoint him as this and anoint him as that. There’s been enough anointing in this market.
Pretty well greased. We think that Nazzy has lots of offensive upside and tremendous talent but again if he doesn’t skate in the neutral ice and stands still making plays there’s challenges that come and turnovers.”
- Carlyle on the Leafs being outshot more than almost every other NHL teams: “There’s a certain amount that you always weigh on that. We chart where the shots are coming from, and that’s the most important thing to us. We would like to keep our shots down below 30, as every team would, and we’d like to get over 30. There’s areas in which we can improve on for sure.”
- Toronto is averaging 27 shots a game and allowing 32 per game, giving them the third worst overall shot differential (behind only Edmonton and Buffalo) and easily the worst at even strength. Generally speaking, shot differential correlates pretty highly with points in the standings, even higher than things like power play percentage, penalty kill percentage and save percentage that you hear talked about far more often. So far, the Leafs have been going way against the trend there.