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Toronto Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupul celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers during the third period of their NHL game in Toronto March 26, 2013. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupul celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers during the third period of their NHL game in Toronto March 26, 2013. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Maple Leafs inch closer to breaking nine-year playoff drought Add to ...

The players can’t help but see them every day at the team’s practice rink.

Up on the interactive Smart Board at the end of the dressing room are the NHL standings, posted digitally for everyone on the Toronto Maple Leafs to ponder and debate whenever they please.

Of late, they’ve looked particularly promising, especially for a franchise that hasn’t made it to the postseason since 2004.

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Entering Thursday’s game with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs are sitting comfortably in sixth in the Eastern Conference after getting points in six consecutive games (3-0-3). That run means they will likely need to win only six or seven of their final 14 games to break their playoff drought.

So close. But still, given the history at work, so far.

“Honestly, it comes up quite a bit,” Leafs netminder James Reimer said during a TSN Radio appearance on Wednesday as the team took a rare day off.

“Not in the sense that, ‘Oh, we have to make the playoffs,’ or ‘We haven’t made the playoffs in a while.’ “We’re conscious of it every day. We look at the standings and you look at who you’re playing. You want to get separation from teams behind you and catch teams ahead of you. Pretty much every day we’re talking about it. We know we’ve got to keep winning.”

Which is true. But this time around, it won’t be nearly as desperate a stretch drive.

Going back to 2005-06, the first year of Toronto’s playoff drought, the Leafs haven’t been higher than 10th in the conference with 14 games to play, meaning they have often needed a nearly impossible run to stay in playoff contention.

The closest they’ve been: Toronto’s record with 14 games to play

Season

GP

Points

Pt per cent

Conference rank

Record needed to make playoffs

2005-06

68

70

0.515

10th

11-3-0

2006-07

68

73

0.537

10th

9-4-1

2007-08

68

68

0.500

13th

13-1-0

2008-09

68

67

0.493

11th

13-0-1

2009-10

68

58

0.426

15th

None

2010-11

68

68

0.500

10th

13-1-0

2011-12

68

68

0.500

12th

12-2-0

2012-13

34

40

0.588

6th

6-8-0*

 

*– estimate based on projected cut-off

 


The reasons why they are in such a better position this year compared to the last seven seasons are myriad, but the main factors are scoring depth, goaltending, shorthanded play and plain old good fortune.

Prior to Wednesday’s games around the league, the Leafs were ranked fifth in goal scoring (despite missing Joffrey Lupul for much of the year), tied for seventh in team save percentage (.915) and tied for fourth in penalty killing (85.6 per cent).

This for a franchise that has never finished higher than eighth, 19th and 24th in the three key categories throughout its franchise record playoff drought.

As for the luck side of things, it’s role has also been undeniable. The Leafs are scoring on a higher percentage of their shots than almost every team in the league (11 per cent) and have an incredible 14-6-4 record when out shot in games, something that is happening far more often than not.

Neither numbers would likely be sustainable over an 82-game season, but in an abbreviated, 48-game sprint, they have made a huge difference in their record and ability to make the postseason.

Toronto has also been one of the healthier teams in the East, with only Lupul’s broken arm taking a top end player out of the lineup for a prolonged period of time.

Added all together, it’s the foundation of a playoff team, one few saw coming before the season started and more than eight years in the making.

And all it will take is just another dozen points to get there.

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