With just two days remaining in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves two points away from clinching the playoffs for just the second time in 13 years. The past week has been an uneasy one for Leafs fans who watched their favourite team struggle in must-win games that could have punched their ticket into the postseason. On top of that, they watched division rivals like the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators secure their position in the playoffs while the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning shorten the distance between them and the Leafs.
All it would take for Toronto is a win in the next two games and the foreseeable nightmare is over. But hockey in the GTA is hardly that simple. As the season nears a close, the Maple Leafs winnable game lands on a Saturday night match up against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Focusing on what’s coming up on the Leafs’ agenda for this weekend, they have two games remaining: a Hockey Night in Canada special against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a Sunday season finale versus the surprise story of the season, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both not the ideal teams anyone would look forward to playing for a back-to-back, but it’s in the cards that were dealt to Toronto.
At this point in time, the Senators have already clinched home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, so that leaves Toronto without any hope of playing on home ice come game one of the first round. Regardless, the Leafs are more likely to be focused on making the playoffs than their potential playoff matchups. What Toronto (team and the city) is solely focused on tonight is finishing tonight’s game in the win column, which isn’t far-fetched to believe.
A Winnable Game
Heading into tonight’s game, a relatively healthy and full Maple Leafs roster will be up against an unfamiliar Penguins line up. Pittsburgh is likely to be without Nick Bonino, Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist, and Bryan Rust tonight as healthy scratches to rest before the playoffs. On top of that, the Penguins will also be missing Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang, to name a few due to injuries.
This sets up Toronto to be in a good position to capitalize on a potential clinching opportunity tonight. We saw how Toronto performed against the depleted Lightning roster, but that team couldn’t afford to lose. The Penguins, on the other hand, have nowhere to go in the standings but stagnant as they’re already a lock to host the Blue Jackets in the first round. Could we see Pittsburgh take their foot off the gas pedal? There’s no way of knowing until the game starts, but based off of Sullivan’s decision to rest some of his players, there’s an implication that his main priority is the playoffs.
Just by comparing the rosters on paper, tonight’s game should be seen as a winnable one on the Leafs end. Toronto has already gotten the best of the Penguins this season after a Jake Gardiner–overtime winner that brought 19,553 fans in Air Canada Centre to their feet.
If Leafs make playoffs – 4 of the bottom 5 teams from a year ago qualify for post season (Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary and Columbus)
If the Maple Leafs want to separate themselves from their old identity, known for playoff collapses and driving 18-wheelers off of cliffs, a win tonight will symbolize the purpose behind the team’s rebrand for their centennial year. And in case some fans are still looking for more reasons on why tonight is the night Toronto should clinch, Phil Kessel being in the building for it to happen should be fitting enough.