ANALYSIS: Races tighten as countdown to playoffs winds down

Mar 28, 2024 | OP-ED, Opinion

The Leafs are currently third in the Atlantic division behind the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins, still having to clinch their spot in this year’s playoffs. And just behind the Leafs is Tampa Bay, working hard to surpass the Leafs.

Last year was the first time the Leafs made it to the second round since 2004, and fans are fearful about what this season will bring.

Fielding Phillips, a self-employed contractor and avid Leafs fan, is trying to stay optimistic about the team’s performance in playoffs.

“It’s similar to every year, the regular season has a little bit of a rough start, goaltending issues, but all in all they put a good season together and make you think good things for the playoffs,” he said.

Phillips said the outlook on the team’s future always looks difficult during the playoffs. He said the format is a major player in how these next few weeks will shape up, which the players have been speaking of during recent interviews.

“I think from here on in our group has to be very competitive,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said in a post-game press conference Sunday. “For us, we’re trying to ramp up into that playoff mode.”

Recent player injuries have had fans worrying about what the next few games will look like.

“They have enough pieces that it shouldn’t affect them that much, the importance comes down to how long are they out and if we are chasing games to get a spot we want,” Phillips said.

Leafs forward Mitch Marner has been off the ice with a high-ankle sprain since the March 7 game against the Bruins, and the team has been 4-2-1 in his absence.

“The more injuries and illnesses and things we face, the more we’ve learned about the value of our depth,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said in a pregame press conference.

Marner is not the only injured player, with goaltender Ilya Samsonov missing a handful of games after an undisclosed injury from Saturday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, and forward Calle Jarnkrok out with a hand injury since March 14.

When asked in a press conference about his thoughts on the last 20 games, Keefe said he is hopeful of the team’s ability to come together and have the players continue to step up.

He gave special mention to forwards Bobby McMann and Connor Dewar on their ability to give the team what they need and made it clear he thinks the team is trending in the right direction.

Dewar was one of the players acquired during the 2024 trade deadline, alongside Ilya Lyubushkin, Joel Edmundson and prospect Cade Webber.

“If [the team] still kept the same pieces every year, that’s why things weren’t moving so well, but there have been some big changes this year and we’ll see what they can do,” Phillips said.

The Lightning are only two points back for third place in the Atlantic as of March 28. Should they pass the Leafs, Toronto will find themselves in a wildcard spot, making their playoff hopes more questioned.

Fans like Phillips are trying to stay hopeful with 11 games remaining of the regular season, including Washington tonight.

“Every year, that first Hockey Night in Canada, I always forget what happened the year before, and then I’m reminded in the playoffs,” he said.