The Rear View Mirror
Being nearly perfect isn't now only necessary if the Maple Leafs have any hope of reaching post-season play.
It may be necessary to stop from falling down the Eastern Conference standings.
Trailing the eighth place Buffalo Sabres by five points, with a potential biggee this Saturday at home with the Sabres coming to town, the Leafs also now look over their shoulders and see the juggernaut-like New Jersey Devils coming.
Jersey trails Toronto by only three points now after being the worst team in hockey before Christmas. Can't blame the Leafs for seeing that gap close. They've gone 6-1-3 over their last 10 and have still seen the Devils gain three points on them by winning nine of 10.
Since Jan. 9, Jacques Lemaire has guided the Devils to a remarkable 20-2-2 charge, including yesterday's shootout win over the Islanders. It took Lemaire less than three weeks to get the club pointed in the right direction after taking over from John MacLean, perhaps the greatest piece of evidence backing the notion that Lemaire is a Hall of Fame coach.
It's not the same as Pittsburgh's record 17-game win streak in '93, or even the Devils 10-game win streak on the road in 2001 that tied a record. Numerically, it pales in comparison to Philly's 35-game unbeaten streak (25 wins, 10 ties) to start the 1979-80 season.
But here's why Jersey's streak deserves recognition as a remarkable accomplishment on its own. None of those teams mentioned above came from where the Devils came from this season, from the absolute depths of misery, from seeing Ilya Kovalchuk whiff on a penalty shot to Martin Brodeur go down with multiple injuries. Kovalchuk was benched for a game by MacLean, and Zach Parise was lost for the season with an injury.
The Devils lost eight of 10 to start the season and were, at one point, 18 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Now they are eight, which also shows you how hard it is to make up ground in the NHL these days once you fall way behind.
Over the past 24 games, the Devils have given up more than two goals just twice. Kovalchuk had eight goals when Lemaire took over Dec. 23. Now he has 24 goals, including nine goals in his last 13.
Chances are that New Jersey won't make the playoffs. They have to leapfrog four teams over the final 17 games.
But they might, and either way, this still goes down as a proud episode in a proud team's history. GM Lou Lamoriello could have pulled the plug on the season. He could have done an Edmonton or an Ottawa, gutted the team and gone for draft picks and sold it as the only way to win a championship in the post-lockout. Maybe that would have been the sensible thing to do.
But Lamoriello is all about winning. He didn't even mind being the butt of jokes for making Lemaire the Devils' version of Billy Martin, coming back for yet another tour of duty.
As it turns out, the joke is on those of use who counted the Devils - and Lamoriello - out.