If the Toronto Maple Leafs hope to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs, they’ll need a big week against their divisional rivals.
The Maple Leafs currently sit one point behind the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning with 80 points in the Atlantic Division standings. Toronto could potentially leapfrog both teams for second place in the division if they are able to defeat the Detroit Red Wings as the Maple Leafs attempt to close out a winning record in the last game of a five-game road trip.
Toronto escaped California with a 2-1 record as they began the road trip visiting the state’s three Western Conference powers. The positive performance in California was nullified after the Maple Leafs failed to show up against the Washington Capitals in a 4-2 loss to even the road trip record at 2-2.
Escaping California with one win would have been enough for most Maple Leaf fans to call it a successful western trip, but after two victories the opportunity for a winning road trip at a crucial point in the season became realistic. Unfortunately, a bad first period against the Capitals cost Toronto their chance at cementing a successful road trip, making the contest against the Red Wings that much more important.
The Maple Leafs must bounce back from the Capitals loss with a victory over Detroit to not only finish the road trip with a positive record but to also maintain pace with the Canadiens and Lightning in the standings. The Red Wings have been decimated by injuries and will likely feature a lineup with more AHL players than NHL players when they host Toronto. This is an opportunity for two points the Maple Leafs cannot afford to pass up at this stage of the season.
Not only do they have to take advantage of a weak Detroit team, but they’ll also need the two points for when the Lightning come to town on Wednesday night. The Lightning will own two games in-hand over Toronto by puck drop, and it’ll be up to the Maple Leafs to determine if they are ahead or behind Tampa Bay in the standings. Regardless of what happens in Detroit, Wednesday’s game will determine who owns a divisional playoff spot and who settles for a wild card position.
Just as much could be on the line Saturday night when the Canadiens come to the Air Canada Centre given how close in the standings the two long-time rivals have been all season. Montreal and Toronto will enter the contest having played the same amount of games which means the showdown may also have the potential to determine who gains ground in the standings and who becomes a wild card team.
The Maple Leafs will need to take advantage of the injured Red Wings before they face back-to-back games that will likely determine if they are a wild card team or not. Facing three divisional opponents in a row this late in the season will play a major factor in determining playoff positioning, especially with the new divisional playoff format.
With only 13 games remaining, Toronto might not get a better opportunity than this three-game divisional stretch to separate themselves from the pack and secure a playoff berth.