When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, you could say that March has gotten off to a difficult start. However, that would imply that February hadn’t been equally difficult in its own right. In fact, 2020 in general has proven to be a rather tumultuous year for the buds, with the team posting a mediocre 13-11-4 record since their first game of the calendar year on January 2nd.
After winning 9 of their final 11 contests in 2019, a flurry of new injuries and underwhelming goaltending has kept the Leafs from securing a playoff berth with any degree of certainty. The honeymoon phase for new head Coach Sheldon Keefe has decidedly come to an end, and with only a single 13 game month left in the regular season there is very little room for error if the city has any chance of repeating their Raptor-level celebrations of last year.
After being called up from the Leafs’ AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies part way through the season, Keefe has a lot to prove if he is going to show MLSE execs and fans alike that he is someone worth putting their faith in.
As of March 7th, the Leafs sit in playoff position at 3rd place in the Atlantic Division, but with a mere 3 points separating them and their closest pursuers, the Florida Panthers. Both teams have had rollercoaster seasons, with each being very effective at scoring while also leaving a lot to be desired on the blue line. This is primarily due to some key injuries being handed to top 4 defencemen on both sides.
To the ire of fans, these similarities have led both teams towards very similar season arcs and kept either club from creating much of a cushion in the standings. While the Leafs were hot before the All-Star break, the Panthers went 8 for 10 in January and closed the gap. As Freddie Andersen’s save percentage began to plummet in 2020, The Panthers answered by winning just 5 of 17 in the month of February.
Looking forward, it could be argued that Florida has the easier schedule coming down the home stretch. The majority of their contests will be against non-playoff contending teams; the most difficult of these being two tilts with the St. Louis Blues and one with the Boston Bruins. The Maple Leafs on the other hand have just completed a California road trip where they faced three of the lowest ranked teams in the standings. In that span, they managed to pick up just 3 goals and 1 point. Now, they must return home to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins in quick succession. The Washington Capitals will also hold court with them before the end of the season, but not before their back to back games with wildcard contenders (who are all tied at 79 points) the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.
The long and short of it is that do or die time has arrived in Leaf Land, and it is going to make for a very exciting month. The stakes are very high, and mistakes can no longer be afforded, but have we ever watched this game for any other reason? As a Leafs fan, ask me again on April 5th.