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Senator Johnny Oduya pounds Leaf Mitch Marner into the boards at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday. Despite the pummelling, Marner picked up fove points in 6-3 win.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

The NHL's playoff format is such that there is a dichotomy when it comes to Toronto Maple Leafs.

On the one hand, there is the opinion of Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher, who saw his team easily handled by the Leafs in a 6-3 win on Saturday night.

"You sit in the office and you look at their lineup, even the fourth line with [Leo] Komarov. This is high, high-end depth on all four lines," Boucher said. "That's why they're such a good team. If you focus on one line you know the other lines are going to [get] you.

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"You look at their third line, that was their first line a few years ago. It's like those high-end teams, you look at the board, they've got that high-end talent on all four lines."

The third-line reference was to centre Tyler Bozak and wingers James van Riemsdyk and Connor Brown. Perhaps nothing illustrates the Leafs' quick rise from the ashes more than this line's place on the roster.

In the 2015-16 season, when the Leafs finished 30th overall in the NHL in their successful pursuit of Auston Matthews at the 2016 entry draft, Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Komarov were the first line for at least part of the time. When head coach Mike Babcock recently tweaked his forward lines to what seems to be their makeup for the rest of the season, Komarov was dropped from the second line to the fourth.

Boucher's remarks were in response to a question about preparing to play against Matthews. While the Matthews line had a hand in Saturday's win – he and William Nylander combined for a breathtaking goal that was part of the first-period knockout punch – it was the second line of Nazem Kadri, Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau that did most of the damage. That trio combined for 10 points with Marner getting five of them.

However, despite all of this fire and power and praise, the consensus view is the Leafs will have trouble getting out of the first round. They will even have trouble getting home-ice advantage in the first round.

Thanks to the NHL's division format in the playoffs, which the league adopted in the 2013-14 season, the Leafs will most likely finish where they are right now, third in the Atlantic Division with 71 points, three behind the second-place Boston Bruins and eight behind the Tampa Bay Lightning before Sunday's games. The Bruins had four games in hand on the Leafs by Sunday. That leaves Toronto, without home advantage, playing Boston in the first round and the Bruins have been one of the top three teams in the league for months.

Under the old conference-based playoff format, if the Leafs hold their current position they would finish third overall in the Eastern Conference. That would mean playing the sixth-place Philadelphia Flyers in the first round with home advantage.

Alas, the divisional format was adopted in order to foster the rivalries that develop in the divisions. An unhappy side effect was a couple of the league's best teams get bounced in the first round every year.

Taking the long view, the Leafs are still headed on an upward track and are expected to be a Stanley Cup contender once a few spots on the roster are improved. But Boucher's comments indicate he thinks they are there already.

An indication of just where the Leafs are will come this week, starting with the Lightning's visit to the Air Canada Centre on Monday night. Then the Leafs play the Columbus Blue Jackets to conclude their five-game homestand on Wednesday and face the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

So far, the Leafs have not shown much against the Lightning, the NHL's best team thus far, losing 2-0 in their only game this season. But the Leafs have three games left with the Lightning to show they really have stepped up in class.

The Leafs also have a reasonably good chance to catch the Bruins for second place in the Atlantic despite Boston's advantage in games in hand.

That would bring home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which would be crucial to any hopes of knocking off the Bruins.

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Also helping in the race against the Bruins is the Leafs' schedule. Outside of the Tampa games and one left against the Bruins, most of their opponents are the also-rans. The Leafs have four games in March against the poor old Buffalo Sabres, for example.

This brings up another point about teams morphing into serious contenders. Elite teams roll over opponents without regard to their position. Teams that take lesser opponents lightly are not ready for serious consideration.

The Leafs need all of those easier points to have any hope of catching Boston. How they perform in those games will tell as much about them as the games against Tampa.

Former Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler says Johnny Bower left a “lasting impression” on everyone he met. Some of hockey's biggest names gathered in Toronto on Wednesday to pay tribute to the Hall of Fame goaltender. The Canadian Press
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