It’s not quite real, not enough to base the future on.
But neither, it now seems clearly evident, is this rush to the finish line by the Maple Leafs entirely a mirage, or a last-minute, pointless impulse.
It’s a bit of both.
Even when the defensive dam sprung leaks as was the case last night against Florida in the most exciting game of the season played at the ACC, there was a special quality about the Leaf performance in a thrilling 6-5 OT win over the Panthers.
And it wasn’t just Mats Sundin’s four goals.
It was the eerie sense all along that somehow the Leafs were going to pull it out even as they took terrible penalties late in regulation and in OT, and even as the moment seemed to grow larger with reports from Tampa that the fading Lightning had fallen badly to Atlanta.
It was also the ongoing, increasingly persuasive sense that had GM John Ferguson discovered the roster potential that was apparently under his nose all season long, just sitting there waiting in the players already owned by the organization, this season might have gone very differently.
So, it seems, the Leafs remain alive at least until Friday.
And therein lies the most painful scenario for blue-and-white patriots.
Imagine, if by the time the Leafs sign off on the regular season at home against Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby next Tuesday, they’ve managed to pass the Bolts, the team they’ve been eye-balling for more than a week.
But then still don’t find themselves in a playoff berth.
See, as warm as the glow is on the Leafs today, and deservedly so, it appears they not only still have an uphill battle left to catch Tampa, but it’s the Thrashers who still have the best chance to knock the defending champs out of the post-season.
The Thrashers have the same number of games left as Toronto – four - but their opponents are Boston, Florida and
That’s four non-playoff teams and a chance to max out at 93 points.
The Leafs, by contrast, get the Islanders tomorrow and the Penguins on Tuesday, sure, but in between there’s a home game against the conference-leading Senators and a road trip to Buffalo the next day, with that game starting just 19 1/2 hours after the Ottawa game ends.
The Leafs, in their ideal world, can garner as many as 92 points.
And what about the Lightning?
In two games, they’ve surrendered 12 goals to Florida and Atlanta, one of them an empty netter. Their goalies, Sean Burke and John Grahame, have combined for a lowly .845 save percentage in those games, with the two taking turns stopping only 18 of 24
Atlanta shots last night in a 6-2 home ice debacle.
Star forward Vinny Lecavalier is minus-6 in those two games, including an ugly minus-4 performance last night. The club’s ace defender, Dan Boyle, is close on Lecavalier’s heels at minus-5 in the two games.
The Bolts are seemingly stuck at 89 points, and now can only accumulate a maximum of 95 points.
Meanwhile, the more you watch Tampa, the more you have a sense this is a team that lost its mojo along the way. The Lightning don’t play with the same sense of shake-and-bake they did en route to the ’04 Stanley Cup, perhaps because of the unnerving sense of inadequate goaltending behind them.
Still, two wins in their final three games definitely gets them in, and a win and a tie might be enough.
They get Carolina on the road Friday and at home Saturday, and they’ve won four and lost two against the Canes this season.
A split there, in theory, might leave them with a must win or tie against Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals at home on Tuesday.
Tampa is 4-1-2 versus the Caps, including a perfect 3-0 in the Sunshine State.
Combined, Tampa has a .690 winning percentage against Carolina and Washington this season.
So the champs are still in the driver’s seat.
But it’s anything but comfy.