Yes, even teams with no play-off hopes and no first round draft choices can play in pseudo-meaningful games down the stretch.
For the Leafs, there are 10 games to go and points to make up if they wish to finish anywhere other than the basement of the Eastern Conference standings. Four points behind their next-closest rivals (the Hurricanes, Lightning and Islanders), this is a tall task that would almost be out of the question if the Leafs weren’t coming in red hot.
If Toronto can win their fourth straight tonight at home against Florida, they would not only move closer to the next tier of Eastern teams, but would gain two points on a Panthers team that sits just five up on them. They could also make a move towards catching a floundering Rangers team that is currently seven points up when the squads meet on Saturday night.
So what’s at stake, aside from pride? Brian Burke has said that he would make the Phil Kessel trade all over again, regardless of what pick the Bruins get out of it, but you have to figure that he wouldn’t be too disappointed to see a late Leafs run negate Boston’s shot at the top selection and a choice between Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall. Currently sitting second-last in the NHL (ahead of only Edmonton), the Leafs will make that pick less and less appealing with each team they can leapfrog. If Toronto can get past four other teams (certainly no small feat), they would leave Boston out of the running for the No. 1 over-all pick while giving their guys confidence heading into next year.
The Leafs have been impressive of late, but how realistic is it to think they could make a big jump in these final 10 games? There’s no question they’ll be in tough to catch any of the teams immediately above them, let along anyone else even higher. But some of these teams (such as Carolina and Tampa Bay tonight) will play each other down the stretch, meaning that at least one team can gain no more than one point in those games.
It’s going to be tough, but if anything, it’s nice for a Leafs fan to have a reason to care as they watch their boys play well down the stretch. Toronto, where the chance to devalue another team’s draft pick is a reason to support the hometown hockey team!
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Written by Ben Fisher