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January stretch will determine Leafs’ playoff chances Add to ...

At the risk of being called yet another Chicken Little media type, the simple truth about the Toronto Maple Leafs season is that it comes down to January. Specifically, the nine home games the Leafs play between Tuesday and Jan. 23.

If they cannot stop the slide that began in December in those nine games, all but two of which are against fellow playoff seekers in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, then it will likely mean a seventh consecutive finish out of the playoffs. The NHL’s unforgiving three-point system only rarely allows teams out of contention by the all-star break to fight their way back in and that only happens if they can win at a pace approaching .700 over the rest of the season.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle, the mad Tweeter, uses an exchange between Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf and assistant coach Greg Cronin to illustrate just how tense things are when it comes to the team’s defensive shortcomings.

Boiling these troubles, which include a penalty killing unit that should be in the witness-protection program, down to a single word means this – goaltending.

Aside from James Reimer’s nice little run between January and April of last year, the Maple Leafs have not had all-star calibre goaltending since 2004, when Ed Belfour’s back was still healthy. That also happens to be the last year the Leafs made the playoffs.

By the end of the 1997-98 season, the Leafs were a mediocre team with one star, Mats Sundin, that finished out of the playoffs. They signed Curtis Joseph in the summer of 1998 to play goal and went to the 1998-99 Eastern Conference final.

Joseph stuck around for four seasons, followed by Belfour for two more. In those six years, the Leafs made the playoffs every year, hit 100 points or more three times, never had less than 90 points and went to two conference championships. With a little better luck with injuries, they could have made the 2002 Stanley Cup final.

Since then, Leaf management, whether it was headed by John Ferguson or Brian Burke, has a history of hastily deciding someone is the next Joseph and giving up too much in a trade for that person or giving him too much in the way of a contract. So it went with Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala and, to a certain extent, J.S. Giguere.

The pattern was continued when Reimer was given a three-year contract for $1.8-million (all currency U.S.) last summer and anointed the No. 1 goaltender. Actually, the pattern kicked in a little earlier when Burke outbid several other NHL teams for Jonas Gustavsson in 2009.

Since then, Reimer has not been able to come close to the goaltender he was a year ago. Getting bonked on the head by Montreal Canadiens forward Brian Gionta is part of it but even when he is 100 per cent healthy, as the Leafs claim he is now, Reimer has not been good.

Neither has Gustavsson, at least consistently good. At least he has the excuse that head coach Ron Wilson, who is still looking for his first win since that big contract extension tweet on Christmas Day, never used him enough to let him find that consistency.

That may change beginning Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, if Gustavsson can post a win.

But this much is sure – none of the Leaf woes, from their penalty killing to their self-destructive tendencies in their own end, will stop until a goaltender starts stopping pucks.

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