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Leafs Beat

Leafs' playoff hopes hinge on finishing with a flourish Add to ...

It’s a number that speaks volumes when it comes to where the Toronto Maple Leafs are this season compared to last.

Twelve.

Twelve points ahead of where they began their run after the all-star break a year ago, and miles closer to being a playoff team in late January than they’ve been since at least 2006-07.

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The Leafs were just 19-25-5 at the break in 2010-11 before suddenly turning in a remarkable final 33 games, getting stellar goaltending from James Reimer and a few other surprises along the way.

Because they were so far back of the pack, however, their 18-9-6 run merely trimmed a 14-point disadvantage down to eight by season’s end.

This time around, Toronto is 25-19-5 and doesn’t need to play catch-up nearly as much as they have in the recent past. The home stretch is more about simply pushing past one of the five teams directly in front of them in the Eastern Conference.

And this week stands as a great chance to get started.

The Leafs come out of the all-star break with back-to-back games against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that is suddenly hot, with seven wins in a row and a five-point lead on Toronto.

Throw in the game Saturday against the Ottawa Senators – another team with a five-point head start – and there’s plenty to play for in these next three games.

Any points they leave on the table could be decisive ones.

Even if the Leafs can repeat that 33-game run from last season, they would still only end up with 97 points – enough to make the postseason, sure, but not by any huge margin.

Roughly 92 or 93 likely does the trick this season, but that still means playing at a slightly better clip the rest of the way than they have so far.

Toronto will need to be better against good teams such as the Penguins, and they’ll need stories like Reimer’s last year when he went 16-7-5 with a .917 save percentage after the all-star game.

They could also certainly use another new body up front to add depth before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, just as they received in Joffrey Lupul last February when he added 18 points in 28 games.

And 14 goals from Nikolai Kulemin, who led the team with that many in the final 33 games last season, wouldn’t hurt either given he’s been MIA almost all season.

To get where the Leafs want to go, in other words, they’ll need more unexpected showings.

Barring a complete meltdown by a team in front of them, Toronto simply doesn’t have the luxury of being just okay the rest of the way.

Coach Ron Wilson noted he was all too aware of that on Monday.

“I’ve been in this position before with a number of teams,” Wilson said. “Where you’ve got to mount a push and usually [we’ve]been pretty good at it. This is the time of year where all the planning throughout the season, you hope [it]starts to bear fruit.”

There’s been talk like that in the past. The difference between this team and many previous iterations of the Leafs, though, is that the “hope” part of the equation isn’t such a faint one.

Toronto controls its fate to a large extent here over the next two months, and while it won’t be easy, it’s far better than where they’ve been before.

Unlike a year ago, if they win, they’re in.

If they don’t, they won’t.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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