There is one thing that might just tip the balance for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their bid to make the NHL playoffs for the first time in nine years – the league's three-point system is working to their advantage for a change.
Far too often in recent years, the Leafs would stumble along anywhere from ninth to 12th or worse in the Eastern Conference (or take a swan dive like last season) and then find it impossible to make up any ground on the top eight teams in the last month because of that point for losing in overtime or in a shootout. In a close playoff race, which is invariably the case in the Eastern Conference, as long as one of the contenders can pick up a point here or there with an overtime loss it can stay just out of reach of the pretenders.
Conversely, the point for an overtime loss is no consolation for any team trying to catch a straggler. This is especially so when the loss is to one of those teams you are trying to catch. In each of the last six seasons, the Leafs were in double digits every year in overtime losses, ranging from 10 last season to 14 in 2009-10. Even turning a few of those into wins could have brought the playoffs into sight a few times, such as 2006-07 and 2007-08 when the Leafs missed the last spot by one and two points, respectively.
But looking down from fifth or sixth place on the rest of the field is much better. So far, the Leafs have points from just three losses outside of regulation time, which is fewer than three of the six teams below them that are still in contention for a playoff spot. But the Leafs' timing is impeccable.
All three of their shootout losses came this month in the midst of the Leafs' mini-slide. Two were during the Leafs' five-game winless streak that had fans and some of the media fretting about another 2012-style collapse and the other split the Leafs' two wins in their last three games.
The three points the Leafs picked up in those games kept them bobbing around sixth place in the last couple of weeks even if they were playing like a 15th-place team at times. The low number of overtime losses also means the Leafs have 17 regulation or overtime wins which will come in handy if tiebreakers are needed to settle the order of finish in the Eastern Conference.
While this is a pleasant change for the players, they claim not to be paying much attention to that sort of thing.
"It's nice but it's a log jam, right?" said defenceman Cody Franson. "We're not out of the woods by any stretch. There's a lot of hockey left and anything can happen."
Franson also dismissed any talk that all the Leafs have to do is play .500 over their 16 remaining regular-season games and the resulting 53 points should be enough to make the playoffs. Something else those three-point games teach you is the futility of looking to other teams to knock off your competition.
"We haven't really looked at it that way," he said. "We try and stay in the moment game-by-game and give ourselves the best positioning possible. We try and make it so we control our own fate and not rely on teams to help us. In order to do that we have to play solid each time out."
In that respect, the Leafs are in good shape, having finally slain the Boston bear after almost two years of futility. They went into Boston for Monday night's finale of their home-and-home series with the Bruins on the high of a 3-2 win Saturday that came despite being outshot 33-13. It was their first win over the Bruins since a shootout win Mar. 31, 2011.
"A huge game for us," Leaf defenceman Mark Fraser called it. "It sets up a really big platform for us. We're very happy with where we are right now."
The Leafs will make one lineup change for Monday's game. Mike Kostka will replace defenceman John Michael-Liles, who is day-to-day with a sprained ankle suffered in Saturday's game.