TORONTO – Math is not on the side of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Neither is time.
There was a hint of wistfulness in the air as the team returned to the practice ice Monday and began preparing for Tuesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
With just six games left on the schedule and seven points to make up in the standings, the dire nature of the situation was impossible to ignore. Despite an impressive 15-7-5 run since the all-star break, the Maple Leafs are likely going to be watching playoff games from the sidelines for a sixth straight year.
“I think we’ve played as a playoff team the whole second half (of the season), to be honest,” said forward Clarke MacArthur. “I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job this second half and we deserve to be there now.”
To keep any hope alive, Toronto needs to beat Buffalo—no easy task of late. The eighth-place Sabres have matched Toronto step for step since the all-star break by going 15-7-4.
“It’s been a tiring month,” said MacArthur. “We’ve won three or four in a row a few times and no one’s losing. It’s tough. As a team, we’ve been battling hard, I’m proud of the guys.
“Hopefully we’ll get one tomorrow and catch a little break here.”
Ultimately, the Maple Leafs need to win all six of their remaining games—they haven’t won more than four in a row at any point this season—and hope one of the teams ahead of them crumbles down the stretch.
The maximum total Toronto can reach is 90 points. The sixth-place Montreal Canadiens and seventh-place New York Rangers need just two wins in their six remaining games to surpass that mark while Buffalo has to win three of its seven games to hit 91 points.
There’s also the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes to pass.
“It sucks to be in the position where you have to count on other teams,” said goalie James Reimer. “Obviously, you’d like to be in the playoffs and be in control of your own business. But that’s what we’re in right now and that’s all right.
“It’s going to add a lot of character in this room—we’re going to keep working hard, keep fighting.”
The Leafs players were scheduled to spend Monday night at a charity event with members of the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Marlies and Toronto FC.
When they face the Sabres at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, the gameplan will be simple and straightforward.
“That first shift has to set the momentum for the game,” said Reimer. “We have to let our fans know and let the other team know we’re coming ready to play. Hopefully we can squeak out two points.”
Toronto has struggled against its division rival in recent years, but is currently riding a two-game win streak against the Sabres. That includes a 4-3 comeback victory March 12 where the Leafs seemed to get to Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller by creating traffic.
Miller has been virtually unbeatable since and was named the NHL’s first star of the week Monday.
If anything, the atmosphere for Tuesday’s game should be close to playoff-like—valuable experience for the 13 current Maple Leafs who have yet to appear in a NHL post-season game.
It’s the favourite time of year for Toronto coach Ron Wilson, who has been behind the bench for 95 playoff games during his career. His last taste of post-season hockey came in 2008 with the San Jose Sharks.
“Most of the teams cut out the baloney, if you want to call it that, and just play,” said Wilson. “This is when the speed gets up, when you rely on your best players more. The hitting’s harder, there’s less retaliation—you just keep on playing.
“It’s the intensity that makes the playoffs special.”
MacArthur has only seen that kind of hockey from the press box. He was a Black Ace with the Sabres at the beginning of his NHL career but has never been part of a team that qualified since developing into a regular player.
If the Leafs end up falling short again, he’ll look back on a 3-7-3 stretch early in the season.
“November killed us,” said MacArthur. “We lost some key guys (to injury) with Dion (Phaneuf), Colby (Armstrong). … Good teams find a way to win when you lose key guys.
“I just think we have a young team and we were trying to figure out how to get things done. It took time.”
Now time is running out.