Leafs: Saturday’s Loss A Reminder Playoff Races Aren’t Supposed to be Easy

Mar 3, 2017; Anaheim, CA, USA; The Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate a goal by center Nazem Kadri (43) against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2017; Anaheim, CA, USA; The Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate a goal by center Nazem Kadri (43) against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Leafs surged up the Eastern Conference’s standings last week while going 7-1-1 in their last nine games, but Saturday night’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres reminded players, fans and sports commentators alike playoff races aren’t supposed to be that easy.

It’s been a while since fans of the Leafs felt this way. It’s a confusing feeling, a terrifying, yet entirely wonderful feeling. It’s a welcomed feeling, because this is what happens when teams play meaningful games late into March.

On Friday, March 3, the Leafs suffered a 5-2 loss at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks, putting the bow on a disappointing three-game trip to California. The Leafs had fallen out of a playoff position, and the 18-wheeler was getting primed and ready for another mid-March road trip.

Then something happened. Like Sylvester Stallone in all his popcorn flick glory, the Leafs’ 18-wheeler hung on to the side of that cliff for dear life. They didn’t collapse, they refused to collapse. After rebounding with a win against Detroit three days later, they followed it up with victories over Philadelphia and Carolina, and would go 7-1-1 over their next nine games.

Accompanying Toronto’s hot steak, was a lull in play from fellow playoff aspirers, such as the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. While their rivals struggled, Toronto picked up enormous points with wins over Boston and Columbus, and a OTL against Chicago. This elevated them up the standings and for the first time all year, the Leafs had some breathing room.

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After a convincing win over the New Jersey Devils last Thursday, fans started to allow themselves to believe this team could actually do the unthinkable, and compete for the Stanley Cup trophy one year after finishing dead last in the NHL standings.

Then the Buffalo Sabres came trolling on into the Air Canada Centre on Saturday and waived a big finger of disapproval right in the face of Mike Babcock, Auston Matthews and Brendan’s ‘Shanaplan’. With a monster effort from Jack Eichel, the Sabres brought the Leafs back to reality with a 5-2 loss.

This certainly wasn’t the result Leafs players or fans were hoping for, but when you think about it, what’s so bad about going 7-2-1 in your last 10 games while you’re in the middle of a playoff race? The Leafs weren’t going to win every remaining game on their schedule, and this loss was nothing more than a reminder that playoff races aren’t as easy as they had been making it seem for the previous three weeks.

The Leafs still sit one point ahead of Boston with a game in hand for third place in the Atlantic division. They also remain three points ahead of the New York Islanders for the second wildcard spot. In other words, they’re still in a great spot. According to MoneyPuck.com, the Leafs’ odds of making the playoffs fell nearly 10 percent after Saturday’s loss to Buffalo, coming in at 76.3 percent.

Seven and a half times out of 10, the Leafs will make the playoffs. I’ll take those odds.

Boston and New York will win more games before this season ends, and the Leafs will lose again. The key now is simply avoiding that disastrous collapse everyone seems to fear.

Well, those fears may have been amplified by a potential injury to Frederik Andersen on Saturday night. If Andersen is unable to play for the rest of the regular season, can this Leafs team continue to hold onto their playoff position? That’s a question most fans would rather avoid.

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The Leafs have eight games remaining in their 2016-2017 season. That’s eight more nights  to prove their youthful roster deserves the right to challenge the League’s best in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s eight more nights of sweating, cheering, and screaming at your television.

Embrace the pressure and welcome the tension, because this is exactly what you’ve been waiting for. Playoff races are never easy, but they’re certainly fun.