Sizing Up The Competition
TORONTO -- Heading into the final week of the regular season the Maple Leafs have five options: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th in the Eastern Conference.
So that means we can safely rule out a first round match-up against Tampa Bay, the Islanders, or Buffalo should a miracle occur. But which first round opponent would be a good fit for the Leafs?
Let's start with Boston.
On pace for a 17-point improvement over a year ago, the Bruins are an interesting study. They are 10th in goals for ... in the Eastern Conference! They've been shutout 10 times, including 8 at home.
The B's number one netminder has not seen one minute of playoff action in the NHL, and Andrew Raycroft's track record shows no series wins at either the AHL or OHL levels.
And Joe Thornton is entering the 5th playoff season of his seven-year career, so far with only one series win. But, Thornton is maturing and the depth around him shows great potential. Glen Murray, a healthy Sergei Samsonov, and a solid six on the blueline make the Bruins tough to beat, but not unbeatable.
They will need Brian Rolston to wake up offensively. The season series with the Leafs was even at 3-3-0-0.
The Philadelphia Flyers took three out of four from Toronto this season, but not the last head-to-head meeting.
With lingering questions regarding the status of Primeau, Desjardins, and Malakhov as the playoffs draw near, one can't help but be concerned as to how those holes will be filled.
But despite a fair amount of adversity down the stretch, Bob's Boys have been no worse than any of the other Eastern contenders of late.
If Robert Esche falters in his first spring fling, maybe Sean Burke will bail them out. In many ways, the Flyers are similar to the Leafs. Just when they think they've assembled the perfect cast, the need for a medical cast appears. Should these two meet again, another marathon will follow.
Anybody up for another Battle of Ontario?
To date the Leafs have fared quite well versus the Senators, having gone 3-1-1-0 in this regular season, their first season series win since 1998-99 against O-town. Ottawa has endured an almost equal amount of significant man-games lost to injury when compared to the Leafs, so it was strangely appropriate that both teams dropped a key player on Saturday (Nolan for Toronto, Lalime for Ottawa).
Things not to like about the Senators ... 7-17 in one-goal games, no wins when trailing after two periods, a .500 record against their own division, just two wins in 18 overtime games, and still a lack of something at times among a very talented group of forwards.
However, one shouldn't overlook history when trying to assess Mr. Melnyk's men. The New York Islanders posted a league best 116 points in 1979. Montreal won the Cup. A year later, the Islanders dropped to 91, and started their run of 4 consecutive Stanley Cup wins.
The Sens are likely to drop about 12 points from winning the President's Trophy a year ago. Maybe they've learned something in the process.
The road to the Cup goes through the swamp. It almost always does. At least it seems that way. The defending champions from New Jersey posted a record of 1-1-2-0 against Toronto this year, and have not met the Leafs in the post-season since 2001.
Yes, the Scott Stevens injury is a huge concern, not to mention the other banged up bodies including Brian Rafalski. But if ever a team had an approach, and a style to overcome such obstacles, it would be New Jersey. Elias (back to his form of 2001) and Gomez have been two of the hottest players over the last two months, and with Gionta back, the EGG line is no longer scrambled.
Do they have the depth beyond these three? I believe they do, if Langenbrunner and Friesen are healthy. But as the records will indicate, if you're going to beat the Devils, your best chance is in round one. This team has been to the finals in three of the last four years. In three of the last six seasons, they've been ousted in the opening round.
They last met in the playoffs in 1979. Some will tell you they were supposed to meet in 1993. In 2004, it could very well happen. Montreal and Toronto met six times this regular season with the Leafs taking four.
Jose Theodore has not fared well in his career versus Toronto. The off-broadway performance of Alexei Kovalev has produced very little in the way of offence. And you can be sure Habs fans are very concerned about Sheldon Souray just because of his medical history. But does any of this really matter?
The emotion alone generated in this series would make it memorable. And you can almost be sure it wouldn't be as short as the series in 1979. For the record, the last time the Maple Leafs beat Les Canadiens in the post-season ... 1967.
And with that, we are back to the original question. Which first round opponent would be a good fit for the Leafs?
If only we knew.