Next Five Games Are Critical for Leafs

After a streak of four straight wins and five wins in six games, the Toronto Maple Leafs have dropped two straight, first to the Phoenix Coyotes and then to the Calgary Flames.

The Leafs’ recent four-game win streak was their second of the season; the first came in the first four games of the 2010-11 season. After that, they lost 11 of their next 12 games.

Now, with two consecutive losses already in the books, the Leafs need a win and quickly. However, things won’t be getting any easier.

Only two of the Maple Leafs’ next five games will be played at home, with meetings against the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals. The other three teams in that five game span are the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning. Their last two games against Carolina and Tampa Bay and first two games against New York and Anaheim will be played on back-to-back nights. Overall, it is a span of five games in seven days.

Only one of those teams (Carolina) currently sits outside of a playoff spot, and even they are only one point out with a record of 22-16-6. The other four teams, Anaheim, Washington, New York and Tampa Bay sit eighth, fifth, sixth and second in their conference respectively.

So with such a tough schedule coming up, what must the Maple Leafs do to remain successful? Well, for one, their veteran players must continue to play well.

Phil Kessel, the Leafs’ leading goal-scorer, must continue on his 35-goal pace at the very least, if not expand on it and take his game to the next level. Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Kris Versteeg are other young veterans that must continue to step up if they wish to get at least six points out of this five game stretch and make the playoffs.

Of course, though, it’s not just the forwards that need to play well. Everyone knows what kind of season veterans like Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and even captain Dion Phaneuf have been having. All three need to turn their season around to prove that the Maple Leafs defence is as good on the ice as it is on paper, and lead the team to their first playoff appearance since the 2003-04 season.

As far as goaltending goes, the Maple Leafs have been fairly solid this season, with one exception.

Jonas Gustavsson has gone 6-12-2 in 20 starts this season. In 22 games, the Danderyd, Sweden native has a goals against average of 3.13 and a save percentage of .896. Nobody would be able to argue that those statistics are good enough to be a starting goaltender, although he has shown signs of great potential at times.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere stopped 32 of the 33 shots he faced on Saturday night against the Flames, but ultimately lost in a shootout. His 2.69 goals against average and .899 save percentage are enough to impress anybody. However, much like Gustavsson, he has been shakey at points.

One of, if not the largest part to the Leafs’ success in 2011 was James Reimer, who was recently sent back to the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League farm team, the Toronto Marlies. In six starts, Reimer went 4-2-0 with a goals against average of 2.27 and a save percentage of .933. Without him, Giguere and Gustavsson will need to play extremely well down the stretch.

If every veteran and every player steps up and plays well over the remaining 38 games, let alone the next five, then the Leafs should be able to continue their success. If they do have any inspiration, it should be their 5-2-1 record in 2011. If the Leafs can take six of a possible ten points over their next five games, they certainly have a chance at the playoffs, but they will also need some help from the teams around them.

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