The Drive For Five (non-playoff edition) *


    * aka “Operation: Basement Breakout”

    With last night’s loss, the Maple Leafs were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for the 5th straight year. This was not really news – even the most optimistic of Leafs‘ fans pretty much knew this to be the case since early into the New Year, if not sooner.

    However, a more prevalent question regarding the season standings remains: is getting out of last place in the Eastern Conference still possible?

    With five games remaining, the Maple Leafs sit in last place (15th) in the East with 69 points.  Even if the team were to win out the rest of the way, 79 points (a below .500 finish) is the best they can mathematically achieve this season.

    Here’s where things get sticky.

    Four teams remain within realistic reach (five mathematically, but the New York Rangers need only one point to be out of the Leafs‘ reach and as such are not included in this analysis).  The Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes are each only 3 to 4 points ahead of the Leafs in the standings (Carolina has 73 points, the others 72).  That’s the good news.

    The bad news is, each of those teams also has at least one game in hand of the Leafs (Florida has two).  Furthering the dilemma, some of those teams play each other over the course of the season’s final week and a half, which makes the prospect of catching up to a particular team that much more difficult.

    In essence, Leafs’ fans will need to pin their hopes on one team to pretty much lose out the rest of the way. Oh, and they will need to find it within themselves to cheer for their divisional rivals, too … especially Ottawa and Montreal.

    Having fun yet? Let’s take a closer look at the situation in chart form:

    (Teams are listed in reverse order of current standings.)

    TEAMTorontoTampa BayNY IslandersFloridaCarolina
    OppositionBuf, Bos, NYR, @Phi, @Mtl@Pit, NYR, Car, Otw, Fla, @FlaPhi, Otw, Mtl, @Pit, @NJ, Pit@Buf, @Bos, NYR, Otw, NJ, @TB, TB@Mtl, @Otw, NJ, @TB, MTL, @Bos
    Key InjuriesKomisarek (D)Malone (W), Ohlund (D), Ranger (D), Smaby (D)DiPietro (G), Martinek (D), Schremp (F), Weight (F)Booth (F), Campbell (F)Gleason (D), Ruuttu (F)

    So what can we conclude from this data? A few things:

    • The home-and-home matchup between Tampa Bay and Florida – two teams the Leafs are chasing – adds an interesting twist to the mix.  Worst-case scenario: they split those games.
    • Four points ahead of Toronto, with a game in hand, and their starting netminder (Ward) back in the lineup, the Carolina Hurricanes (who are now less-impacted by injury than the other teams within in Toronto’s reach) are arguably going to be the most difficult team for the Leafs to catch.
    • The New York Islanders may be the easiest to catch of all the teams the Leafs are chasing.  Their young players (Tavares, Bailey, Okposo, Moulson) have struggled to produce lately, and their schedule is anything but a walk in the park as they will face Pittsburgh twice, as well as Philadelphia and New Jersey.
    • Interestingly, Leafs’ fans will find themselves in the odd position of having to cheer for each of their division rivals in the ‘Race To Get Out Of Last Place’.  Each of the teams they are chasing will face at least one of their rivals at some point during their final 6 (or 7) games as all four are involved in games against the teams the Leafs are chasing.
    • On that note, here’s the really bad news: the Islanders, mentioned above as the team with arguably the best chance to stumble down the stretch, face both Ottawa and Montreal.  Florida and Tampa Bay also face off against Ottawa, and Carolina not only faces Ottawa, but also Montreal – twice.  Those in the counselling industry may be well-advised to start up a few Toronto-based support groups this week.
    • Of course, for there to be any hope whatsoever of the Leafs pulling out of last in the conference, they will need to win out themselves (putting them at 79 points), or at the very least win 4 of the last 5 (77 – 78 points).
    • Should the Leafs manage four wins (77 pts), opposition teams would need only win three games to put the Leafs out of reach. Even with an OT loss to get to 78 points, the Leafs would not have enough wins for a tiebreak under that scenario.
    • Winning out is going to be much more difficult to do, but certainly aids the task as opposition teams would have to win four games to remain ahead of the Leafs.

    This final stretch, which I will dub the “Drive For Five: Non-Playoff Edition“, begins at the ACC on Thursday as the Sabres pay a visit. The Bruins and Flyers will follow, with the Leafs closing out their season (and hopefully clawing their way out of the basement) in New York and, finally, Montreal.

    Should worse come to worse, and the Leafs find themselves in 15th after 82 games, there is always the (much slimmer) hope of the lottery being won by a team other than Edmonton (who have already secured last place overall) or Toronto, which would bump the Leafs out of the top two picks overall.

    It could happen, although I must admit I like the odds of the Leafs winning out (or at the very least taking 4 of 5) much better than the odds of the lottery being won by a team finishing 28th or better.  And I would imagine the majority of Leafs Nation feels the same way.

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always,