After doing battle for the third time this season on Wednesday night, the Leafs and Jets split from their marriage in the standings once again and Toronto climbed back into a playoff spot. The Jets on the other hand, saw their goal differential slip to -11 on the season after the 4-0 loss, they still sit in tenth.
If we know anything, it’s that January through February is an important stretch of the NHL season. Go figure, it’s the meatiest part of the schedule really, outside of the hilarious All-Star Game. You need only to look at these two clubs to understand why.
Last year around this time, the Leafs and Thrashers (I think that’s what they were called) started to turn the wheels, heading in opposite directions.
For the Leafs, who were horrendous up until Christmas, things picked up in the new year. The team somewhat turned the corner on a terrible season up to that point and grabbed 13 points in January with a 6-6-1 record – nothing too impressive, but a decent showing for a thought-to-be basement club nonetheless. That month also gave James Reimer a chance to show he could handle the job between the pipes while he posted a personal record of 5-2-0.
The Leafs would use that respectable month and the back of Reimer to have an outstanding February, grabbing 20 points on an 8-2-4 record. By the end of the month, they had established a record of 27-27-9 Â for 63 points, which basically blew our minds considering they entered 2011 at 13-19-4. They looked basement worthy early, but it didn’t shake out that way.
By that time, the Thrashers (Jets) had completed their collapse that many saw coming.
Most advanced statistics experts believed the Thrashers couldn’t maintain a pace they set by the new year at 20-15-6, and were they ever right. The club began to slip, but like the Leafs, had a reasonable January with 11 points on a 4-4-3 record, then carried that over to a February collapse that was really something to behold. After 6 points in the entire month, they were dead even with the Leafs at 63 points. Both would miss the playoffs, and one would even leave town.
So what’s the story this season? I guess we’ll find out. But right now it looks to me that the Leafs at least should be the better team going forward. That isn’t a slight on Winnipeg, the Leafs just look further along in what they’re trying to do – they’re depth crushes the Jets’, or so it seems.
We know how important these next six weeks will be, and while it took the Leafs until February 23rd to scrape their way to .500 hockey last year, they won’t have the same problem this time around.
Of course a big part (or the entirety) of their success last season centred around Reimer’s insane performance down the stretch, so whether the goaltending is good enough to create some separation here in the next little while is questionable. But the Leafs showed some great discipline and a solid all-round effort in getting Gustavsson a shutout last night, so if he’s the guy going forward (he isn’t) or Reimer takes the reigns again (yes), the team looks capable of putting some wins together regardless.
Are the Leafs a lock to make the playoffs? Just like last week, when they were sitting outside the top eight, the answer is “of course not.”
It’s still quite clear that they should be right on the edge of making the playoffs, but suddenly the 7-11 group has turned into a 5-11 group with the Penguins and Capitals yet to break away. Just keep your eyes on the standings over the next little while (like you wouldn’t anyway) and watch the pretenders fall. Hopefully the Leafs aren’t one of them.
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