Five Crucial Games in the 2011-2012 Leafs Schedule
As the second week of August is now upon us I, for one, am getting prepared for an exciting 2011-2012 regular season. In an attempt to relieve my Leafs withdrawal over the weekend I began studying the schedule for the upcoming season. The games that immediately stand out are the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs returning to Winnipeg to face the Jets on New Years Eve and of course Dion and the Leafs' Valentine's Day date in Calgary. Although those games do have their storylines, crucial to the season they are not. Upon careful consideration the five crucial games in the Toronto Maple Leafs 2011-2012 are:
Exactly two weeks after the Leafs open the season they get their first real test. After beginning the season with five straight home games against the Canadiens, Senators, Flames, Avalanche and Jets, the Leafs head to the home of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Their first road game of the season in Boston will be a measuring stick for the young Leafs team. It will also be the first game of a seven game road trip in which the Leafs make stops in Philadelphia, Montreal, New Jersey and head to Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers.
As the past two seasons have proved, a good start is critical to the Leafs. Getting a result on the road, in a building where the Leafs have had their problems, against the champs could be the spark the Leafs need to fuel them through the longest road trip of the season. A young Leafs team coming off of last seasons late run could gain loads of confidence by playing well in this early season test against the Bruins. On the other hand, if the Leafs play poorly in Boston it could deflate the young buds sending them into another early season tailspin.
Nothing says Friday night in the middle of December like a Leafs road game in Buffalo. These games have become a staple in the Leafs schedule. What has become just as common though is the destruction of the Leafs by the Sabres. Regardless of how these two teams are in the standings, the Sabres always manage to soundly defeat the Leafs. Yet last season the upstart Leafs were able to head down the highway and defeat the Sabres in the final two regular season games. Have the Leafs finally gotten the monkey off of their back?
This game will be the first meeting of the season between these two divisional rivals. It is important that the Leafs win this game. By defeating the Sabres, the Leafs can build on the momentum of last seasons success in a building that has traditionally been a house of horrors. With another game between these two teams scheduled less than a week later, this Friday night meeting in Buffalo is definitely a statement game.
As has been the norm in the post lockout NHL, the race for the playoffs really heat up from February onward. Since I believe that the Leafs will qualify for the post season, the final two and a half months are ones in which consistency will be key.
Facing the Crosby led Penguins in a home and home series, on back to back nights looks to be one of the most difficult times of the season. The schedule in February seems favorable to the buds. With games against the Senators, Flames, Devils, Panthers and twice against the Oilers the Leafs need to accumulate as many points as possible. Therefore the back end of the home and home versus the Penguins is one in which the Leafs must be able to achieve two points.
The Leafs need to be able to compete with the Eastern Conference elite in order to make the playoffs. The effort in this game will go a long way to prove whether the final two months will be a fight for the playoffs or the beginning of meaningless games in the spring.
Trust me, this is not a typo. Throughout every season there are trap games. Teams will look past a defeatable opponent in the midst of a difficult stretch in their schedule and end up losing a winnable game. The two games previous to the meeting with the Panthers are against the Sharks and Capitals. The five games after are against the Black Hawks, Canadiens, Bruins, Penguins, Flyers and Capitals.
Getting two points against an easier opponent is extremely important to the Leafs' playoff chances. Losing this game will not only be devastating in the points column, but demoralizing for a team heading into a difficult stretch. Hopefully the Leafs remember how detrimental a loss to the Panthers was last season and learn from their mistakes.
With only seven games left in the season this will be a matchup of two teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Rangers and Leafs will both be competing for a post season berth, and this game will be a big step closer for the winner and a crushing loss for the loser.
Heading into the 2011-2012 season the Rangers have accumulated a 6-0-2 record against the Leafs while outscoring them 32-11 the previous two seasons. For the Leafs to take a significant step to respectability, and their first playoff berth in eight years, defeating the Rangers is a must. A team must be able to take matters into their own hands. This game will be crucial if the Leafs are to control their own destiny in the final stretch of the playoff race.
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