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Crunch time beckons for resurgent Maple Leafs

The regulation losses were going to come, sooner or later, and the Toronto Maple Leafs all seemed to agree with what their coach spelled out in black and white after an ugly 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

"It would be awful idiotic to say that we were going to win every game the rest of the way," Ron Wilson said. "We'll move on to the next one, learn our lessons and get better."

He was right, of course.

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Winning every game wasn't going to be possible.

Winning most of the rest, however, is a must if Toronto wants a hope of making the playoffs.

The Leafs are now three games into their most difficult month of the season, a 15-games-in-30-days stretch that includes eight games against teams with 80-plus points and playoff berths all but locked up.

There are also the must-wins along the way, including Tuesday's visit to the New York Islanders, one of a handful of teams behind Toronto in the Eastern Conference standing.

On an improbable 10-2-4 run since the all-star break before Saturday's loss, the Leafs realize they now need a similar 16-game stretch to close the year to get into the postseason for the first time in seven years.

"There's probably a very, very small margin for error," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "But in saying that, we've had a pretty good last month here."

The Leafs currently sit five points back of eighth in the East, and the good news is that three of their March games come against two of the three teams they're chasing (two against the Buffalo Sabres and one against the Carolina Hurricanes).

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Those, more than any games, are probably in the must-win category – along with quite a few more.

Another 10-2-4 showing to close the year would get Toronto to 91 points, which would mean an excellent chance (75 per cent or better) of qualifying for the playoffs.

Anything less than 90 points and their chances are half that.

The minimum number of points to give the Leafs a reasonable chance is 88, and even then, they would need another 21 points – a 10-5-1 record – and some of the teams around them to falter down the stretch.

"I haven't figured it out," Schenn said. "I don't think anyone [on the team] has mathematically. The good thing is, we are still in control of whether or not we make it. We really don't have to scoreboard watch too badly right now.

"To be honest, I think if you asked most guys in this room, they probably couldn't even tell you [who] our next five games [are against].

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"We've just, bottom line, got to get wins down the stretch."

This is all heady, new territory for the Leafs' youngest player, as Schenn has never been closer than nine points back of a playoff spot at this point in the season.

On March 7 a year ago, things were even grimmer than that, as the Leafs sat 16 points out of a playoff spot, second last in the NHL and were a few months away from watching a division rival in the Boston Bruins use their second overall pick in the draft.

Even facing long odds and needing as many wins as they do, Schenn said this is a far better situation than he's used to at this time of the year.

"In the past, we were trying to finish out the year playing for pride," he said. "Trying to get better and maybe play the spoiler role a little bit. Everybody was already talking about next year.

"This is definitely the most fun I've had playing in a race like this. It's already a playoff-like atmosphere for us."

And how long that continues is entirely up to them.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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