Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Maple Leafs Four Game Home Stand - What It Means.

       How is it going Leafs fans.  I know in Leafs Nation it has been a rough few games.  The Leafs have been in their biggest slump of the year, losing five of their last six.  They were only able to pull out one win in Western Canada where they have always had trouble.  In those six games Toronto has been outscored 25-11.  A ratio that Toronto can not have continue if they want to make it into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.  With 23 games left in the season there is room for Toronto to either climb in the standing or drop right out of contention.  This week Toronto has a four game home stand against teams that are also fighting for playoff spots in the East.  It is the first of two more four game home stands for the Leafs and they need to solidify themselves at home if they want to compete with the big boys at the top.  In this blog I am going to examine each game and see what each one could mean to the Leafs playoff hopes.  This very well could be the week we all look back at as the one that got the Leafs in or out of the playoffs.

February 21'st - New Jersey Devils
Photo Courtesy the Toronto Sun
       The first game of the week is against the always tough New Jersey Devils.  Toronto will face a New Jersey team that is one of the hottest teams in the entire NHL.  They are 8-1-1 in their past ten and have gone from fighting for eighth spot to being in a position to have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.  New Jersey looks set to make the playoffs after an off year last year where they missed the playoffs for the first time in the post lockout era.  They always bring their A game when they play Toronto and will look to add to their point total as they try and run down New York for the division title.  New Jersey will not lay down in the game and Toronto must be prepared.  Jonas Gustavsson will get the start for Toronto in net and he will look to have a repeat performance against New Jersey.  Back in November he had 19 saves giving Toronto the win in their first meeting of the year.  The teams have split the first two games and will play one more later in the year as well.  If Toronto is to play well they will need to use their speed to frustrate the defensive minded Devils.  The Devils have proven to be a tough road team posting 18 wins so far this season.  More then they have at their home rink, the Prudential Center.  This will be a chance for Toronto to try and track down Ottawa and separate themselves from Washington and Winnipeg.

February 23'rd - San Jose Sharks
Former Sharks Coach Ron Wilson
       The first and only meeting between these two teams will take place Thursday and will be another tough test for Toronto.  However Toronto will be playing a team that is fighting for their playoff lives.  While they currently sit third in the West with 69 points, the Sharks are in danger of being caught by a very hot Coyotes team.  If San Jose does not turn their play around they could drop from third to seventh and risk being caught by the likes of LA, Calgary, and Dallas and could be on the outside looking in for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.  Toronto has a record of 24-16-5 against the Sharks and will look to take advantage of a team not playing up to their potential.  This will be a tough game but one Toronto should be able to win.  If Toronto can shut down the likes of Logan Couture and Joe Thornton then it should make it easier for Toronto to take advantage of the mediocre goaltending San Jose has had lately.  This will be a great game to watch.

February 25'th - Washington Capitals
       Depending on what happens in the previous two games the team you see in Toronto could look a lot different.  This is the last game before the trade deadline and there will most likely be one or two new faces in the lineup for Toronto.  This is the same for Washington as they may look to shake things up after being one of the big disappointments of the NHL season so far.  They currently sit tenth and are risking missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.  However they are only two points back of the Southeast leading Panthers and depending on how they play could move from tenth all the way up to third.  A win against Toronto would provide Washington with the chance to catch Florida but also make sure they are closer to the eighth spot if something goes wrong.  The teams have split the first two games, one of which was a 7-1 thrashing delivered by the Maple Leafs.  They will play once more after this game and those will be four big points up for grabs.  Toronto has proven they can shit the Great 8 down and when they do that they have the speed to match Washington, something most teams can not say.  A win here would help Toronto separate from teams below them and help secure a spot in the playoffs.

February 28th - Florida Panthers
       This game will have a lot of the same implications that the Washington game will have.  Florida is currently third in the East and looking to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-200 season. A streak of ten seasons that is the longest in the NHL.  A streak that if broken could come at the expense of Toronto who ironically have the second longest drought at six seasons.  This will be a fight between two teams who need to make the playoffs. Florida needs wins to make sure they don't risk losing the division lead and right out of the playoffs.  They have both Winnipeg and Washington right on their heels and this game could help get them some separation.  This is the third of four meetings this season and Florida has won both so far.  Toronto has no played well against Florida this year and needs to turn it around.  They have given up five goals in both games and will need their goalies to step up and help them win this game.  This will be the first game after the deadline so depending on the previous three games this could be a Toronto team that will look vastly different.  Perhaps we will be seeing Rick Nash suit up for his first game as a Leaf.  Either way this is the last game of the home stand and take Toronto into Chicago where they will finish out February and head into the final month.
Photo Courtesy Mississauga News

       With the trade deadline looming this is a stretch Toronto needs to do well on in order to give themselves a chance.  Too long has Toronto allowed other teams to determine their playoffs lives.  We have seen when you do that more often then not you end up teeing it up at a golf course.  Toronto needs the playoffs.  This team needs to show they are headed in the right direction and give this city something to cheer about.  We will see if at the end of this stretch if we can be a little more certain about the Maple Leafs future.

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