Back to the future for the Maple Leafs

Photo: Nathan Denette/CP

Six straight losses for the Toronto Maple Leafs and what has mostly been the unthinkable this season is on the verge of becoming a reality.  For the third consecutive year the Leafs are on the verge of blowing what has looked like an insurmountable lead to get eliminated from the NHL playoffs.

Two years ago, the team was solidly in the spot in February and home ice advantage in the first round wasn’t out of the question. Feb. 11th, 2012 was the night they honoured Mats Sundin at ACC before their game against Montreal. In Sundin’s speech he encouraged Leafs fans to support these guys who were so proud to wear the Blue and White. They tried their best, though there wasn’t much to cheer about that night. Little did anyone realize that when Lars Eller blew by Dion Phaneuf to score one of the five Montreal goals in a 5-0 Canadiens victory, it marked the beginning of the end of any playoff action for the Leafs. That loss was their third straight—and a stretch of just two wins in 17 games was already underway.

Last season it came down to the final regular-season games to clinch a post-season berth, but the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons—an achievement unto itself in Leaf Land. Couple that with rallying to beat the Boston Bruins in games five and six, and you’ve got the makings of some actual success. But, again it came down to blowing an insurmountable lead. As we so painfully remember, the Leafs became the first team to ever lose a game seven when they had a three goal lead in the third period. All the equity, goodwill and marginal successes of the previous 54 games was gone, replaced the bitter pill of one 17-minute stretch.

Now the Leafs are on the verge of repeating the same script with the same unhappy ending. To their credit, they banked points with a strong early season start and have been solidly entrenched in a playoff spot for the vast majority of the season. Arguably their biggest win of the campaign was just two weeks ago (3-2 in Los Angeles after being down 2-0) and led to talk of talk finishing second in the Atlantic Division. That game in Los Angeles is not just arguably their biggest win on the season, as of now it is their last victory.

Unlike two years ago, this time it is not as dramatic as the 18-wheeler going off the highway. It is more like a series of seemingly minor traffic violations that unfortunately result in significant punishment on the scoreboard.

I will wait for at least another week before any kind of post-mortem. The Leafs are in a position similar to the Vancouver Canucks were a few weeks ago. They had basically hit rock bottom and GM Mike Gillis was remarkably candid and non-abrasive in discussing his team’s woes with the media. Their season had been a disaster, what else could he say? What else could he do? Nothing, really, but what the team could do is win games. And remarkably, the absent sniper Alexandre Burrows scored a few the next night and the team has strung together a few wins when you least expect it. They are still doubtful to qualify for the playoffs… But they did go out and win some games.

That is all the Leafs can do now. They don’t unilaterally control their playoff destiny anymore. The can just go out and win. They will need excellent goaltending and the revival of some sound team defensive play, which has evaporated since the Olympic break. They need their first line to be a dominant offensive force and they need an upgrade in the secondary scoring. And maybe someone like David Clarkson can assume a Burrows-type role and score some goals when least expected.

Otherwise, the 2013-2014 Leafs season post-mortem just is a week away.

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