The Toronto Maple Leafs, mired in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, have a chance to begin climbing out of that hole this week with back-to-back games against the two teams directly in front of them - tonight against the Florida Panthers and tomorrow in Philadelphia against the Flyers.
Two wins would mean the Leafs could move into a tie with both teams at 41 points. Two losses, and Toronto's already slim playoff hopes would take another major hit.
"Obviously we're aware of where they are in the standings," Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said after the game-day skate. "But no matter who you play, whether it's a team from out West or in your own division or the same conference, those are all points that we need. We're aware of where we are in the standings and we're going to have to make up some ground here and start stringing some [wins]here together."
Getting the start in goal for Toronto will be rookie Jonas Gustavsson, making his sixth start in the past eight games. Gustavsson got the win in a 6-4 victory over the Panthers back in late November.
Missing for the Leafs will be defenceman Mike Komisarek, who coach Ron Wilson said would miss the two games against the Panthers and Flyers with an undisclosed upper body injury. His absence likely means Schenn will be paired with Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger and Garnet Exelby will make up the Leafs third pairing.
I had a chat with Leafs centre John Mitchell this morning about his injured left knee, an MCL tear that has kept him out of the past 20 games. Mitchell admitted to there being some tenderness in the area but that he expected to play all four games the Leafs have in the next five nights.
"It's feeling good, no it's feels real good," Mitchell said. "I mean it's obviously a little loose or a little wonky. I wear a brace on it and everything so that should defend it from any further injuries."
Mitchell had a similar injury in his first pro season in the AHL in 2005-06, an MCL tear on the same knee but in a different part of the ligament. He said that the injuries weren't related.
"With an MCL, it fully heals pretty much after a year," Mitchell said, adding that he had stopped wearing a brace not long after the first injury had healed three years ago.
Wilson said he expects Mitchell to play a lot on the team's second line tonight with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman.
The following chart gives you an idea of what the Leafs are up against in their pursuit of a playoff spot. Setting the playoff pace as 90 points over a full season, the equivalent of about 1.1 points per game, you can see how Toronto fell about 10 points back of that pace in the first 20 games.
Twenty-two games later, the Leafs are nine points back.
If there's good news, it's in the fact there's still a bit of a turtle derby at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. While last year the Panthers missed the playoffs with 93 points, this season the seventh- and eighth-place teams are on pace for only 88 and 84 points. (The Leafs, meanwhile, are on pace for 72, ahead of only the last-place Carolina Hurricanes. Toronto had 81 points last season.)
The y-axis is total points and the x-axis is games played.