Gotta Get Two Out Of Three
The Maple Leafs probably aren't a good enough team that they can expect to go on the road for three Western Conference matches and expect to come away with four points.
But if they don't do that this week on a road swing that includes visits to Minnesota (tonight), Colorado and Detroit, well, they'll have to stop considering themselves to be a playoff-worthy team.
Three wins, really, is what is needed. Two would do, but then running the table afterwards would be almost a must. Perhaps it's all just math anyway and there really is no significant chance of acquiring a post-season berth, but you win as many games as you can then see what the standings say after everyone's played 82.
Thing is, these three this week are all winnable. The Wild have lost six in a row and are just awful right now. The Avalanche, once a perennial powerhouse in the west, are now a ghost of a once proud franchise, and that's with the extremely impressive Matt Duchene in the lineup every night.
Detroit is a different issue. Last night they played without Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, and Jimmy Howard has been ordinary. Really, the Wings are just marking time until the post-season begins, and that's why a truly hungry and focussed Leaf team should stand a very good chance of going into Joe Louis on Saturday and taking two points.
That's the big picture. The smaller picture boils down to individuals, special teams and the like. Plus there are players looking to nail down jobs for next season, players who know GM Brian Burke will surely be looking to add over the summer month.
Actually, it's already started. Tyler Brenner of Linwood, Ont., was signed as an unrestricted free agent out of Rochester Institute of Technology on Monday, a 22-year-old winger with size and a penchant for scoring goals. Now, RIT has yielded much over the years when it comes to high-end hockey talent, so this is really evidence that there is no level to which Burke won't go to try and find assets. There were a few teams after Brenner, and now we'll find out where he fits among a crowd of Leaf NCAA grads like Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Brayden Irwin, Simon Gysbers and Ben Scrivens. Bozak's a player, this we know. None of the others are. Yet. But if one of Brenner, Irwin, Gysbers or Scrivens joins Bozak in the bigs, that would be a 40 per cent success rate, just as good or better than the entry draft.
There's no shortage of Leafs on the bubble heading towards next season, no shortage of players many would point to and say this isn't a good team as long as that player (insert name here) is on the roster. Tim Brent, for example, might be such a player, but at the same time one of the undertold stories of the Leaf season is how Brent, at age 27, has managed to get more out of this season than anybody would have imagined.
When the season started, it was Brent and Mike Zigomanis holding down the third and fourth line centre spots. Zigomanis was soon back with the Marlies, but Brent has not only lasted he's become increasingly important, both as a "glue" type player on the third line but also as a penalty killer and, most recently, Tomas Kaberle's replacement on the power play.
Now nobody's going to mistake Brent for a high-end power play quarterback. But he's been serviceable, and over the course of the season, the equivalent of a utility infielder who can play four different positions and even pitch for you if the game gets way out of hand. Playing between 13-15 minutes per night, Brent has become a player that matters for the Leafs just as the team has become decidedly more competitive in the second half.
This week, if you're the Leafs you're looking for wins, period. This is desperation time. But you have to believe the mindset of the Leaf front office has already partly switched over to next season, trying to figure who fits and who doesn't. Mike Komisarek might be the name of a player who no longer fits. But Brent might be a player thought to be a stopgap type at best who may end up having a long shelf life with Burke's Leafs.