After a 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves in a playoff spot for the first time in a long time.
The Toronto Maple Leafs leapt over Boston and Tampa Bay for third place in the Atlantic, tied with the Senators (who are in second with one game in hand). They play the first-place Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
But realistically, will the Leafs be in a playoff spot in April?
It’s probably a safe bet to say that this Leafs team has outperformed expectations. No one expected any of the rookies to have put this team on their backs the way they’ve done.
What the Leafs decide to do at the trade deadline will tell us where management wants this team to go: if they become sellers, obviously, they would prefer to see the team a part of the lottery instead of in the playoffs. But with the deadline two months away, it’s anyone’s guess as to what they’re planning to do.
The Leafs have been winning a lot lately, but they’ve been giving up so many third period leads in the last ten games that it’s impossible to guess how many of their next games they’re going to win or lose. But if the habit of evaporating leads continues, we probably won’t be seeing the Leafs in the playoffs this season.
It’s not just holding leads that is a problem anymore. Against the Devils, the Leafs dominated the first period, and then finished the game with a total of 14 shots on goal (and none in the final 27 minutes of the game). They let New Jersey claw their way back in the game, and had they been playing a better team, the game might’ve ended up like the Capitals one.
Here’s a staggering yet unsurprising stat displayed on the broadcast earlier tonight: the Leafs have allowed 40 goals in the third period alone this season. It’s about halfway through the NHL season. If Toronto wants to stay in playoff contention, that number can’t grow exponentially anymore. They’re going to have to find a way to buckle down and, as crazy as it sounds, find a way to stop giving up these leads.
Is it inexperience? Bad luck? Bad defensive coverage? Are they cursed? Why can’t this team hold a lead? How has it gotten to a point where the moment the Leafs have a multi-goal lead of at least four goals do Leafs fans automatically assume the game will end up tied?
If the leads keep disappearing, maybe that’s a sign to management that they should be sellers at the deadline. Don’t try and push a broken product towards the playoffs when it’s clearly not ready.
Once the team can figure out a way to stop giving up multi-goal leads is when they can safely and readily push for the playoffs. The success they’re having is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not going to last forever at this rate, and the Leafs shouldn’t sacrifice the rebuild for the chance at a legitimate playoff spot when the team isn’t ready.