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Going Gets Tough in Leafs’ Second Half

Posted By Ben Fisher On Jan 13 2012 @ 1:55 pm In Toronto Maple Leafs | No Comments

Brady Hoke, the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines football team, offered a great quote recently on the subject of gauging your club’s prospects by looking at rival teams when he told Dan Patrick, “If we’ve got to talk negatives about other schools, we don’t have enough positives to talk about with what we have.”

That seems to be the general mentality of team coaches and executives, who’d prefer to focus their attention inward rather than occupy their time worried about opponents whom they can’t control – and rightfully so.

The problem, however, is that sports are constructed to pit teams against one another, not only within games but also over the course of year-long pursuits at postseason seedings. So yeah, you can focus inward all you want, but at the end of the day, you are only as good as how you compare to those around you.

This is my rather long-winded way to examine the remaining second half schedule for the Leafs, and how rosy their playoff outlook appears in connection with the fortunes of other clubs vying for Eastern Conference playoff seeds.

As it stands now, the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers all appear to be foregone conclusions as playoff participants, claiming three of the eight available spots. Among those remaining five, at least one will go to the winner of the Southeast division, currently controlled by the surprise Florida Panthers (although Washington continues to lurk four points back and with a game in hand).

With four spots left up for grabs, the second half will be about verifying the legitimacy of first half standouts (with the Ottawa Senators atop the list), as well as the ability for perennial contenders to rebound (the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins being chief among them).

In the middle of it all is Toronto, currently No. 7 in the conference and three points clear of a playoff spot while sitting just one point shy of the New Jersey Devils with a game in hand. The Leafs are steadily returning back to health (Tyler Bozak is the only regular currently out of the line-up) and play five of their next six games at home, but it’s hard to ignore the presence of the Penguins, Sabres and even the Jets lurking on the playoff fringes.

Over the long-term, the schedule gets tough. After the All-Star break, the Leafs play 18 of their remaining 33 games on the road, including a three-game swing through Western Canada and a five-game road trip in which four of the five opponents (Washington, Florida, Ottawa and Boston) currently occupy Eastern playoff spots.

Of course, the remaining schedule at this point isn’t going to be a breeze for anyone. Buffalo has 23 of their final 39 games taking place away from home, while Scotiabank Place will be devoid of any Senators games (although it will host All-Star Weekend) from January 16 until February 3.

The point is, the postseason opportunity is there for Toronto, but it won’t be easy. Among those in the mix for the 5-8 seeds in the East, only the Capitals currently hold a game in hand on the Leafs (conversely, the Buds own a game in hand on New Jersey and Winnipeg and three on Ottawa). Obviously, the return to health of Crosby, as well as the return to consistency of Ryan Miller, could shake up the playoff picture. However, the fact that Toronto is well ahead of its 2010-11 pace in what is an improved Eastern Conferences bodes well for their fortunes and should provide a confidence boost heading into the second half race.

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