Nose To The Grindstone
Four teams have clinched Eastern Conference playoff berths and the Maple Leafs couldn't have become the fifth on Thursday night even if they had wanted to.
Winnipeg won in OT, almost blowing a two-goal lead against Carolina, and so kept their chances of catching Toronto alive, although you have to believe the red-hot Jets really have their sights set on the inconsistent Rangers.
Could they catch the Leafs? Sure. But hoping for a total collapse from a team that has played pretty consistently this season would be hoping for a lot.
The Leafs have had a bad week, plain and simple, after having two very good weeks. They may already have enough points to qualify for post-season play, but obviously dropping the final four matches of the season wouldn't exactly be the way a team, any team, would want to be playing heading into the playoffs.
So what's gone wrong this week that was right last week?
Well, for starters, give a little credit to the opponents. New Jersey was desperate and thoroughly outplayed the Leafs by as much or more than the Islanders did on Thursday. The Devils just didn't have Ilya Kovalchuk or any finish at all, and they were unlucky losers.
Washington is playing as well as anybody right now (until losing to Ottawa last night) with Alex Ovechkin pushing himself into Hart contention, and they were well prepared and energetic to pounce on a Leaf team playing a third game in four nights.
The Isles, meanwhile, having quietly been working their way up the east standings, losing only one of their last 10. They have a losing record at home (10-11-3) but are one of the league's best road squads (13-5-2). Only Chicago and Anaheim have lost fewer games away from their home barn this season.
Like the Leafs, the Islanders are trying to change the way people think of them. John Tavares will be in the Hart race with Ovechkin, and the Islanders looked to have the Leafs well-scouted on Thursday and seemed a step ahead all night, particularly on the forecheck. They haven't clinched yet either, but they could be troublesome in the post-season.
The Leafs, meanwhile, seem to have been playing the rope-a-dope game for a little too long, and have lost their forecheck and neutral zone game as a result. Even in an easy win over Montreal last Saturday they were outshot, and the gap between Toronto's forwards and defence has increased. Expect Randy Carlyle to get the coaching wrench out and tighten that up.
The first line centred by Tyler Bozak is playing well, but the second unit with Nazem Kadri has stumbled, with Kadri playing arguably his worst game of the season on Thursday, unable to accomplish much at either end of the ice. He needs to pick his game up.
A few practices would obviously help. After Saturday's game in Ottawa, the Leafs will likely take Sunday off then get in two good workouts before playing Tampa and Florida on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
It's hard to imagine right now their playoff hopes could come down to Saturday, April 27th against Montreal, again at home, but it could. That would be reminiscent of the 2006-07 season when the Leafs needed to beat the Habs on the final Saturday of the season, and did, only to see netminder Wade Dubielewicz help the Islanders beat the Devils in a shootout the next day and vault Long Island into the post-season ahead of Toronto.
This Saturday, the Jets and Islanders lock horns in an afternoon game in Manitoba, a big one for both teams. Winnipeg then plays three in four nights at Buffalo, at Philly and home to Montreal next Thursday. If they're still alive, they have to sit back and wait out the final three days of season as spectators.
It's going to be uncomfortable for more than a few teams. The Rangers need to get something going. Winnipeg desperately wants a playoff berth. Buffalo believes it is still alive. Detroit has fallen to 10th in the west and is trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and pay a visit on Saturday to Vancouver against a Canucks has clinched but won't feel very good after a desultory effort in Dallas on Thursday. Columbus is desperately trying to hold on to the final playoff spot in the west, an achievement that would mean the world to that franchise.
Sure Leaf fans are squirming uncomfortably in their seats after the past three performances. But a look around the league shows a lot of squirming going on.