What exactly is the Toronto Maple Leafs playing for as they enter the second half of the NHL season? Last year, as the season wound down, the Maple Leafs weren’t playing for much. They weren’t going to win the division, the Tampa Bay Lightning had that won early. And the Boston Bruins were a lock for second long before the season ended. Nor was any team likely to catch Toronto for third place in the Atlantic division. The Maple Leafs knew they were heading for a playoff matchup with Boston long before the season ended. This year, it’s shaping up to be a little more interesting as the Leafs hurdle towards the end of the regular season.
Toronto Maple Leafs Playing For Playoff Home Ice Advantage
The Atlantic Division Title
Tampa Bay holds a 12 point lead over the Maple Leafs heading into Saturday night’s games. They’ve won an amazing 17 of their last 19 games. That segment of games is on pace for a 146 point season. It’s given Tampa Bay the sizable lead they have now, but it’s not sustainable. Probably.
That doesn’t mean the Maple Leafs will be able to catch the Lightning, but it’s not totally out of the question. Toronto plays Tampa Bay three more times this season. If the Maple Leafs win all three, the first is coming up next week, it would cut the 12 point lead in half and the Maple Leafs have a game in hand. They could still catch the Lightning if everything goes Toronto’s way, but it’s a long shot.
The best the Maple Leafs can realistically hope for is second place, but that comes with home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Something they haven’t had since 2004, but the Maple Leafs haven’t locked up a second place like the Lightning have first. They may have by March, but there’s still work to be done and there’s still a chance the Maple Leafs will be fighting for second place all the way down to the wire.
That could prove to be an advantage for the Maple Leafs. Teams that have something to play for till the end of the season often are a little more playoff ready than teams that have struggled to find motivation. They’re a little more ready to go when the games get, as Mike Babcock might say, a little heavier. Of course, playing meaningful games right to the end of the season could also burn some players out a little more than they’d like.
Boston isn’t the only team Toronto needs to worry about. Both the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens are still in the hunt. They’re only six and seven points behind the Maple Leafs respectively. If the Leafs slip, any one of these teams could catch them. If they slip too much, they could even slide to a wild card spot.
Toronto has three games remaining against each of Buffalo and Montreal. Those games could be crucial for the Maple Leafs to stay in the division’s top three or even second place, especially if Buffalo or Montreal get on hot streaks.
Home Ice Advantage
The Maple Leafs should desperately want home ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially if they’re going to face Boston. Toronto and Boston have met twice in the playoffs over the past six years, with this year possibly being the third time in that span. In both the previous meetings, the Maple Leafs allowed the Bruins to come from behind in the third period of game sevens. Both of those games were at TD Center in Boston.
It’s not just holding a late-game lead in a hostile environment that home-ice advantage can give you. It’s the first two games of the series as well. in last year’s playoff matchup, Boston dominated the Maple Leafs in the first two games. They won 5-1 and 7-3 in games one and two. That set the tone and the Maple Leafs were behind until the final game. Teams that score the first goal of a game win more than they lose. Winning the first game or two of a playoff series is the same and it’s much easier to win games at home. If the Maple Leafs meet Boston, or anyone, with the first two games at home, the odds of them winning their first playoff series in 15 years are going to be much higher and the players know that.
The remainder of the season holds many important games for the Maple Leafs. Aside from the nine games in total against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Montreal, they also play the Colorado Avalanche, who has one of the best first lines in the league, and Washington Capitals twice each and they’ll see the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators once more each. Both of Pittsburgh and Nashville have been able to hold Toronto’s potent offence to zero goals in a game this season.
The Maple Leafs also have a Western Canada road trip in March and a six-game road trip in February. How they fare against the top teams in the league and on the road will not only determine where they finish in the Atlantic Division, it will be an indication of just how ready for a gruelling playoff run they are.
Saturday Night Against The Boston Bruins
The first test comes tonight at home against the Bruins. The Maple Leafs have won one and lost two so far this season against the Bruins. This is the last time they’ll meet in the regular season. It may not be as much of a litmus test for Boston as it is Toronto, but for the Maple Leafs, beating the Bruins at any point is a positive. A sign they’re ready to take the next step.
One game doesn’t paint a full picture, but tonight’s game is not only a chance for Toronto to tie the season series against Boston, but it’s also an important game considering where these teams are in the standings. Toronto has a four-point lead over Boston, with a game in hand. Win tonight and it’s a six-point lead with a game in hand. Lose and it’s only a two-point lead.
Neither of these teams has been healthy this year and Frederik Andersen may not return to action until next week, so this game may not be a great predictor of who will win in a seven-game series. That being said, it’s a game the Maple Leafs must be ready for, they’ve lost to good teams recently while beating up on weaker teams. Tonight they have a chance to buck that trend.