It’s not often you describe the 48th game of the season as a near “must win” but such is the dire situation the Leafs find themselves in as they sit 12 points out (albeit with four games in hand) of the playoffs and face off against the ninth placed Hurricanes tonight in Carolina. It’s one of those four point games the Leafs must swing in their favour if the players in the locker room still hold any of the remaining playoff aspirations the majority of fans and pundits have long since kissed goodbye. Given the games in hand on current eighth-seed occupant Atlanta, the ninth-placed Hurricanes are actually a more important target for the Leafs at this stage – Eric Staal’s club sits three points behind eighth-placed Atlanta with three games in hand.
As experienced fans when it comes too-little-too-late post-season pushes, we’ve heard year after year something to the tune of “it’s not so much the points gap between them and eighth, it’s all the teams in between.” Which only adds further emphasis to the importance of taking two points from the Canes and adding it to the Leaf point column as far as this dim playoff cause goes.
Obviously, the key is displaying the effort and ability to find the back of the net (not to forget goaltending) that has seen intermittent winning streaks and not the inconsistency that has seen those spikes in play nullified by subsequent losing streaks. The Leafs’ Reimer-backed four game winning streak has since been canceled out by a 1-3-1 stretch over their last five. Many will suggest demanding consistency is tantamount to asking a young, inexperienced and not yet talented enough squad not to be exactly that. So far the peaks and valleys we’ve seen out of this team certainly supports that theory.
The last time these two teams met was after the Leafs’ snowy debacle in New Jersey and ended in a late 4-3 defeat off of a Patrick Dwyer tip shot past Gustavsson. It was a winnable game if the Leafs could’ve beat a hot Cam Ward with more frequency (37 shots) and avoided some sloppy defensive plays that might have been attributable to the travel delays. John Mitchell had a crucial giveaway for one of two Staal goals that shouldn’t be a factor tonight as he won’t be in the lineup. The Leafs’ PP and Kessel did find some success, as both scored twice.
Jean Sebastien Giguere starts tonight with Gustavsson on the bench (Reimer plays tomorrow). Ward goes for the Hurricanes.