The Toronto Maple Leafs are making things hard on themselves.
Like the Canadiens of a couple of weeks ago, the Leafs were recently sent on a forced march through sunny California, facing some of the league's best competition, and the two teams have reacted differently.
The Buds produced better overall results than their Quebec-based rivals, managing victories over the both the Ducks and Kings while being crushed by the Sharks. Montreal's beat-down at the fins of the Sharks was the cherry on the top of a rough week, where they managed only a single win in four attempts.
In a showing of symmetry, both teams have reversed their fortunes since returning home. Losing to Boston in their first game back, the Habs then ran off three straight wins, playing some excellent hockey while taking six points from the Senators, Sabres, and Avalanche. That streak of positivity was snuffed out by the Blue Jackets on Thursday, and it looks like that sloppy has affair has created a casualty in Jarred Tinordi. After a critical giveaway on Ryan Johansen's late game-winner, Tinordi has been relegated to the pressbox this evening, in favour of an older, slower, heavier version of himself without the puck skills. Don't ever let anyone tell you that Michel Therrien isn't anything but a kindly, nurturing fellow with the best interests of his young players' development at heart.
Nonetheless, the three games prior to Columbus left the Habs in a comfortable playoff position after a period of some moderate doubt about the team's competitiveness.
For the Leafs, it hasn't been pretty since they've travelled back across the continent. There's been losses to the Capitals, Red Wings, and Lightning. James Reimer, the league's best back-up goalie, looks to have been effectively driven out of town after "losing" a game in which he was given this to work with on the game-winning goal:
And, of course, Randy Carlyle is still a genius.
The Leafs' success despite those numbers is astounding. They consistently get some of the best goaltending in the league between Jonathan Bernier (tonight's starter) and Reimer, yet have given up almost forty goals more than the Canadiens have this season. When one considers the Leafs' overall team performance, it really puts the accomplishments of players like Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Bernier in perspective.
In any case, the Leafs have put themselves between a rock and a hard place, and the Habs can make it even more difficult with a win tonight. With eleven games left in their season, the Leafs sit in the first wild card position in the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings are breathing down their necks, however, sitting only three points back with a game in hand on Toronto. A Montreal victory would almost finalize a Canadiens-Lightning first round matchup, with both teams comfortably ahead of the wild card pack and Boston out of reach. For Toronto, it would mean giving more ammunition to competitors like the Wings, Blue Jackets, and Devils, putting a team that has occupied a playoff position all season in serious jeopardy of not attending the dance.
The Habs-Leafs rivalry may have taken a back seat of late, but for the Habs and their fans, there's no sweeter way to spend a Saturday night.