John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and hockey for over 30 years. He now is the editor of Leafs Game Day, the official program of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
by John Iaboni
January 30, 2007
(TORONTO) - The resumption of the NHL's regular-season schedule following the All-Star Break also meant a renewed, all-out offensive on a ritual called scoreboard watching.
|The Leafs started the second half right vs. the Habs Sunday. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
Take last Saturday, for instance. The Leafs? Win over Montreal. The Penguins? Win over Phoenix. The Rangers? Win over Philadelphia. The Islanders? Win over Buffalo. The Capitals? Win over Carolina. The Panthers? Win over New Jersey. The Bruins? Loss to the Senators. The Lightning? Idle.
With the exception of the defeat by Boston and taking advantage of a game in hand on Tampa Bay, all those results didn't advance the Leafs against those other teams but at least they didn't fall further behind. Looking at the standings following those matches, the gap in the Eastern Conference between the seventh-place Penguins (54 points from 48 games for the nod over Tampa's 54 points from 51 games) and 14th-place Florida (48 points from 51 games) was awfully slim.
Among the group of teams on the outside-looking-in at that phase, the Islanders, Capitals, Bruins and Panthers were above .500 at home while the Rangers were bang on .500 at home. The Leafs? Well, thanks to the 4-1 triumph over the Canadiens, they moved to within one game of .500 at home (11-12-3).
Strange isn't it that in 2005-06 the Leafs set a club record for most wins at home in a season (26) and stayed in the playoff hunt right until the final weekend because of that. This season, they've kept in the race because of 12 wins on the road - three short of what they obtained in 2005-06!
The shortcomings at home have indeed put the Leafs in a hole. Their sub-par performance at Air Canada Centre has been largely assisted by a penalty-killing efficiency at home of 78.8 per cent that ranks 29th among all NHL clubs. The Leafs actually moved up a notch on Phoenix Saturday by killing six-of-seven Montreal power plays.
Noteworthy was the fact the Habs boast one of the best power plays in the league.
Meanwhile, the Leafs boosted their power-play efficiency to 20.7 per cent at home on the season (12th overall) by converting three-of-four chances, two on blasts by Pavel Kubina and Mats Sundin, the other on a pinball shot by Jeff O'Neill.
"Our penalty killing and our power both played well tonight," Sundin said. "Our special teams did a great job. We talked about it a lot. I don't think either our power play or our penalty killing has been very good the last few weeks and tonight we stressed that. We worked on it in our practices and we got some results."
|Andrew Raycroft will look to keep a hot streak rolling. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
Staring the Leafs in the face now, of course, is the five-game trek through Carolina, the Rangers, Ottawa, St. Louis and Nashville. When they return home it doesn't get any easier as their first two opponents are the Penguins and Islanders. Let's just say that, with 32 games to play (15 at home; 17 on the road) the pressure is on. Last season, 92 points by Tampa earned the Lightning the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference, two ahead of Toronto and Atlanta.
Given the even greater tightness this season, some envision the cutoff could be as low as 88 points and perhaps as high as 92. Using that range, the Leafs with 52 points in 50 games would have to earn anywhere from 36 to 40 points from here on in to reach that plateau. Achieving that is still no guarantee that will be good enough to secure a playoff seeding because of the high number of squads in the fray.
"We know the position we're in and we need to win hockey games," said Sundin matter-of-factly. "I mean if you want to be a playoff team you need to be a few games over .500 without a doubt or else you won't have a chance to make it in. Our road record is decent but at home you need to be a threat and we haven't been that so far this year. Hopefully this is the start of something good at home; that we can get on a roll at home."
It's amazing that once the Leafs adopted the simple game plan against Montreal, everything fell into place. Their special teams were sharp; their five-on-five play solid and goalie Andrew Raycroft was allowed a clear view with his mates ensuring little chance for second opportunities. Leafs fans, therefore, had reason to cheer the team's performance from goaltender to the guys in front of him, unlike the previous three home games that produced losses to Buffalo, Carolina and Vancouver.
"Every win's important," Raycroft said. "We've played really well on the road especially the last two months on the road. We feel comfortable on the road so we weren't saying we've got to win now because we might not get one for the next five games on the road. We're definitely not worried about that. We just wanted to come out and have a good effort at home which we haven't had for a while. So it was nice tonight."
Now it's on to another day...and more scoreboard watching!