Halfway to Something or Somewhere
Another weird weekend to be a Maple Leafs fan.
By 11 p.m. on Saturday, there could only have been consternation, with the club having blown a game in OT to division rival Montreal.
By 11 p.m. last night, after a surprising victory in Pittsburgh, the very same observers could feel content and hopeful over a three-of-a-possible-four-points weekend.
Wednesday night in Edmonton will be game No. 41 for the Leafs, the halfway mark of the 2009-10 season. The trip goes on to Calgary on Saturday, and while road games aren't easy, it's hardly the same as years ago when such a trip was a visit to Alberta's Death Valley. Heck, the lowly St. Louis Blues marched through all of western Canada last month and won three games against the Canucks, Flames and Oilers.
Last night's game had to be an encouraging one for Ron Wilson's team. After allowing Evgeny Malkin to set up Mike Rupp for a late tying goal, the Leafs victimized the same Malkin for his defensive laziness moments later, allowing Ian White — after good work by Jason Blake, Lee Stempniak and Francois Beauchemin — to hammer home the winning goal.
With 37 points, the Leafs are probably out of danger of finishing last overall, although as long as they're in the bottom five there's still the chance that the Boston Bruins could use Toronto's pick and, through the draft lottery, pick first overall next June.
Who exactly gets that pick and the right to draft Taylor Hall shouldn't matter any more to Leaf fans. But given the Phil Kessel deal, it's apparent folks would be happier if Hall went to Carolina or Edmonton or wherever, as if denying Boston the top pick will somehow make the trade or the Leafs better.
My advice? Appreciate Kessel's ability and potential and hope he develops into a star capable of carrying the club. If the Leafs ever do return to the Stanley Cup final in our lifetime, they won't be playing the Bruins.
Since starting 1-7-3, the Leafs are 13-10-6 for a points percentage of .551. That's better, but not good enough to get to the post-season. A sizzling finish, say something along the lines of .666 play (say 25-11-6), would make it a 93-point season and probably get the Leafs through to the playoffs. That said, Atlanta holds down eighth in the Eastern Conference and is playing at an 88-point clip, so maybe less will be needed.
Right now, the Leafs would end up with about 83 points if they continue garnering points at the same pace they have over the past 29 games, likely good for 26th or 27th. That wouldn't be good enough for the playoffs, but would keep the Bruins out of the lottery.
Guess it's all about how one measures success.
The asterisk here is that the Leafs, really, have been remarkably healthy so far, with eight regulars having skated in every game this season. The injuries have been manageable and haven't come in difficult groups, except for the time when both Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala were ailing.
Mike Van Ryn, of course, was lost early. John MItchell was lost at the 22-game mark, ruining his contract season, promising defenceman Carl Gunnarson went down after a handful of games, Mike Komisarek missed eight games and Viktor Stalberg has been injured twice, limiting him to 11 games after a terrific training camp.
If that good injury luck continues, the Leafs could yet make noise in the east. If not, look out. Having a surprising number of Olympians, however, will add strain to those athletes.
The brightest notes so far? The effort of Blake, the steady improvement of Nikolai Kulemin, the obvious promise of Gustavsson, the point production of Tomas Kaberle and Kessel's immediate impact.
Darker tones? Try Jeff Finger (minus-11 in 22 games, $3.5 million for each of the next two seasons), the ongoing struggles of Luke Schenn, invisible Rickard Wallin (albeit better lately) and the continuing tease of Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Let the rollercoaster continue.