It comes down to this.
The Leafs play Washington at the ACC on Tuesday.
Wednesday they are in New Jersey.
Saturday at home…Montreal.
Standing between the Leafs and their first playoff in seven years: a team viewed as a pre-season Stanley Cup contender, a mirror image team that slept through the first leg of the season and finally, the Canadiens, their magnificent rival.
The hope, for Leafs fans, is for enough life to allow one final delicious meeting with the Canadiens. If the Leafs can’t beat the Canadiens with the playoffs in sight, a moral argument can be made that they have no business being in the post-season at all.
Then again, you never know.
Remember Brian Burke talking about making the playoffs the right way, at full throttle.
The painful fact is the Leafs weren’t expected to make the playoffs this year. Their improvement curve has been astonishing to everyone, in and outside the executive chambers.
Who knew that James Reimer
was, well, James Reimer
, that Nazem Kadri
would begin to stand out, that Keith Aulie and Dion Phaneuf
would form one of the better tandems in the NHL, that Phaneuf would get his mojo back that the line of Clarke MacArthur
, Nikolai Kulemin
and Mikhail Grabovski
would continue to tear through opposition lineups?
If you could see one of these things coming, one, then you Sir or Madam are in the wrong business. Please be so kind as to apply in writing to the Leafs hockey operations.
Since Christmas those things have overcome what seemed impossible to overcome. That would be, in no order, the lack of a number once centre, porous penalty killing and a continually ineffectual power play.
No, what is happening here is the best possible scenario. It proves, once again…you never know.
With the New York Rangers joining the Buffalo Sabres as targets to be overtaken in the race for eighth place, the last week becomes harder to track, not easier.
That the week still has some juice of course, is due to Reimer, solid again in the Leafs 4-2 win over the Senators, Saturday.
Reimer was placidly waiting outside a scrum, waiting his turn to be interviewed Saturday night.
“We’re doing this for you guys,” he smiled to a writer, the way a farmer would say across the fence. “We want to keep you working as long as we can.”
The pressure, it seems, isn’t getting to him.
Same with Phaneuf, still as deliberate and controlled as a surgeon in the post-game scrum.
Same it seems, for all of them. Reimer is the perfect man to lead them on to the ice every game…the gravity of the situation escapes him. He’s the one who has it right.
Maybe that’s what has been gained here, what would be ended but not necessarily cut short if the week does not end how so many would have it end.
It’s the first, fundamental and most important of all elements: the ability and desire to compete, to grind down a weaker an opponent such as the Senators and avoid being ground down by a formidable one such as the Sabres and Bruins.
The Maple Leafs are gulping rarified air at a rate unthinkable before Christmas. They are nowhere near the summit, but of the first time in years, they can see it, with or without a playoff to sweeten the vista.
Next year, Burke promises, a reconstituted team that addresses, thanks to a hefty war chest, the club’s lack of size up front and the lack of a stud centre.
The 2011-2012 season will pretty well look the same should the Leafs enjoy a spectacular week or, as roundly predicted, fall agonizingly short.
But oh, to have Montreal as the last gate to charge through.
Because you never know.