The Toronto Maple Leafs’ ascension in the Eastern Conference standings has changed the way teams view the Leafs. How will Toronto handle their new role?
The hunter is now the hunted. At least that’s the feeling when you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs in context with the Eastern Conference standings.
Remember the beginning of the season when expectations were low and Toronto was hunting whatever team they could surpass in the standings? Well, fast-forward 54 games into the season and the Leafs are no longer the hunter, instead, they’re the ones being hunted.
Just take a quick glance at the Eastern Conference standings and look at the teams trailing the Leafs. The Philadelphia Flyers are tied with Toronto at 61 points, but the Leafs have two games in-hand on Philly, while the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning are all within four points or less.
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Even the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference (the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings) are all within five to seven points of the Leafs. Needless to say, teams won’t be surprised by the Leafs down the stretch.
Of course, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins — and you could argue the New York Rangers — are truly “the hunted” teams in the East, but when it comes to the two Wild Card spots, the Leafs are in the cross-hairs of every team below them.
Unfortunately, the Leafs haven’t done themselves any favours recently by earning just six points in their last eight games, which is only better than the Red Wings and Canadiens. Meanwhile, the teams trailing Toronto have closed the gap and are slowly beginning to look like the teams we thought they would be this season, in particular the Lightning and Panthers.
You could imagine both of the underachieving teams from Florida are just a tad frustrated when they look at the Atlantic Division standings and see the young, inexperienced Maple Leafs ahead of them.
Toronto Maple Leafs
I mean, the Leafs organization carries themselves with a New York Yankees, “Evil Empire” type swagger, so you know every team wants to beat the Leafs regardless of where they are in the standings. After all, it’s the Leafs. It’s the team you grew up either loving or hating as a hockey fan.
Now imagine the animosity you have for the Leafs if you’re a rival franchise and you know you’re better than how you’ve been playing? That’s how the Sabres, Lightning and Panthers and feel right now (I would add the Red Wings too, but I think it’s debatable as to how good they actually are).
All three of those teams know they’re better than what they’ve shown thus far, and they’re all determined to prove it. With a pair of head-to-head matchups against each team remaining on the Leafs’ schedule, you can bet those games are circled on each team’s calendar.
While what the Leafs have been able to accomplish so far this season is impressive, expectations have increased throughout the season and the fan base is now expecting the Leafs to at least be competitive down the stretch.
Much like the fan base, though, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ expectations of themselves has to evolve too. This team of young, energetic players were the quiet, unexpected hunters of the first half of the season, but now the secret’s out. The Leafs are actually good again and the rest of the Eastern Conference is now gunning for them.