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Tim Brent #37 and Mike Brown #18 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Mike Brown goal against the Boston Bruins during game action at the Air Canada Centre March 19, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)
Tim Brent #37 and Mike Brown #18 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate Mike Brown goal against the Boston Bruins during game action at the Air Canada Centre March 19, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images) (Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)

Leafs Beat

Leafs' late run looks familiar Add to ...

There are two schools of thought when it comes to what's happening with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

One says we've seen this act before.

The other, in a more glass-half-full approach, says not quite.

It's been well documented how the Leafs have had these post-all-star break or Olympic runs before, winning freely and easily once the pressure is off and a playoff spot is all but out of reach.

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This season, true to form, Toronto has been one of the NHL's top teams since Feb. 1. After a convincing 5-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Saturday, the Leafs have put up 31 points in 24 games (13-6-5) in that span.

That's a 106-point pace and, before the NHL's schedule of games Sunday, just three teams - the San Jose Sharks (36), New Jersey Devils (35) and Vancouver Canucks (32) - had gained more points since the all-star break.

And yet it's still likely not enough.

The Leafs begin a three-game trip through the Western Conference this week still five points back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, with a 2-2-0 showing last week doing them no favours in the race.

The New York Rangers, who won again Sunday, are now eight points up and essentially out of reach in seventh spot, leaving only the Buffalo Sabres - one of the East's better teams since a horrific 3-9-2 start - to catch.

Running the table on the Leafs' last extended trip of the season would make things interesting, especially with a game against the Sabres when they return to Toronto on March 29 in a game that could mean a whole lot.

"We're well aware in here as a team that we don't really have a lot of time left to start getting points," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "We don't feel we're down and out by any means, but we've got a lot of work left to do."

Which is putting it mildly.

Toronto needs to go 8-1-0 to close the season with 90 points, while Buffalo can hit that mark with a pedestrian 5-4-1 finish. (The Rangers get there with a losing record at 4-5-0.)

And here's where the glass-half-full types will chime in.

The Leafs have certainly been here before, fighting valiantly and failing to sneak into the postseason, but what hasn't happened in the past is a general manager seeing the forest for the trees and realizing a low playoff seed won't mean much at all in the scheme of things.

How else can one explain Brian Burke shuttling out veterans Tomas Kaberle, François Beauchemin and Kris Versteeg before the trade deadline, bringing in more youth and stating, emphatically, that his eye was on next season and beyond?

That Toronto has since gone on to win so often with what's left is remarkable.

The Leafs are 7-4-4 since Kaberle was dealt to the Bruins, where he's struggled to make much impact at all.

They're 9-4-4 since Versteeg went to the Philadelphia Flyers and 9-5-5 since Beauchemin went to the Anaheim Ducks, with a lot of the credit due to rookie netminder James Reimer, given Toronto has been outshot in all but five of their past 25 games.

What has changed from previous seasons is that this is a team built on youth - tied as the second-youngest group in the league now that Nazem Kadri is back in the lineup - and with every single one of the key contributors likely to return next season.

The real litmus test for whether this late-season run is another mirage or something more will come at the start of next season, when what will still be a very young group (with a couple new additions) will have to take a run at a playoff spot starting in October rather than February.

Until then, we're all only guessing what this all means and if Burke's unique approach to rebuilding the Leafs is finally paying off.

After all, being a young team is nice, but there are an awful lot of those at the bottom of the standings these days, too.

Top teams from all-star break to March 19

Rank

Team

Points

1.

San Jose

36

2.

New Jersey

35

3.

Vancouver

32

T4.

Washington

31

T4.

Los Angeles

31

T4.

Toronto

31

T4.

NY Islanders

31

8.

Phoenix

30

9.

Calgary

29

T10.

Detroit & Chicago

28

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