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Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) checks Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) as he attempts to pursue the puck at Air Canada Centre. The Lightning beat the Maple Leafs 5-3. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf (3) checks Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) as he attempts to pursue the puck at Air Canada Centre. The Lightning beat the Maple Leafs 5-3.

(Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Leafs playoff push no sure thing as margin for error gets slimmer Add to ...

A good name for it would be the NHL’s panic line.

After all, it’s the barrier between the playoff teams and those on the outside looking in, the difference between being eighth and ninth in the conference – and for general managers, coaches and players, it matters.

Even early in the year.

If you’re on the right side of the line, no matter how your team is playing, there’s always the old adage of “well, we’re in playoff position, so we must be doing something right.”

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If you’re on the wrong side, you don’t have those excuses. You’re just playing to get there so you have the words to say.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been lucky this season to enjoy most of it well away from the panic line. Aside from one brief nosedive in January that they quickly corrected with six consecutive wins, they’ve been at least four points clear of ninth place consistently going back to early October.

In fact, by the end of that first month, the Leafs were 10-4-0 and in first in the Eastern Conference, with an impressive 10-point buffer over a group of five teams tied for ninth spot.

Now, with three weeks to go, that gap is down to three points.

One of the problems facing the Leafs is they came off of Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning having played more games than any other Eastern team.

So while their advantage over the Detroit Red Wings (who trail by three points), Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers (both by two points) would seem to be beneficial, the fact those teams all get to play out their games in hand in the next few weeks makes it much less so.

The harsh reality, too, is the Leafs have frittered away a lot of their margin for error in losing four of their last five games in regulation. And they’ve also significantly hurt their ability to avoid the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the postseason.

Out of the 60-per-cent chance that probability website sportsclubstats.com gives the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs, 46 per cent is for them to finish in a wild-card spot – which would mean either a rematch with the Bruins or a tough series against a Penguins franchise desperate to avoid another early exit.

That leaves two ways to look at Toronto’s remaining 11 games:

If you want to be picky and have the Leafs finish in second or third in the Atlantic Division and avoid the wild card, they’re going to have to win a lot.

It will likely take at least a 7-3-1 (95 points) or better finish to get up to third and face the Tampa Bay Lightning or Montreal Canadiens in Round 1 – a tall order for a Toronto team that has only four wins in 11 games since the Olympic break.

But if you just want to see the Leafs return to the playoffs, the road is much easier, as 91 or 92 points should be enough for eighth place, barring a big run from Washington or Detroit behind them. Toronto likely needs to win only four or five of its final 11 games and pick up some extra loser points to pull that off.

The Leafs would have to be particularly brutal, in other words – losing something like 14 of their 22 post-Olympic break games – in order to wind up below the panic line and miss the postseason.

It’s possible with the holes in their game right now, but that 10-point cushion they built at the start of the campaign could very well save them in the end.

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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