Final stretch of the season; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Toronto Maple Leafs preview

The last week of the regular season for the Lightning sees them take on a reeling and desperate Toronto Maple Leaf team who are on the brink of elimination from playoff contention.

Where:  Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
When: 7:30 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Television: Fox Sports Florida, RDS, Sportsnet Ontario | Radio: 970 AM WFLA
Opponent Coverage: Pension Plan Puppets, The Leafs Nation

If you haven't noticed the standings, or haven't paid much attention to the Toronto Maple Leafs directly for the past few weeks, there's an implosion going on. A promising season has been pissed away via a collapse while things are most important. It doesn't mean the Leafs have given up or aren't playing worth a damn, it's that their weaknesses have been exploited and they've been sent toward the darkness of the NHL off-season instead of locking in a playoff berth.

Toronto is 2-8-0 in their past 10 and 6-11-2 since the resumption of play after the Olympic break in February. Coupled with the ascension of the Detroit Red Wings in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs are all but done at this point; they are 3 points behind Columbus for the final wild card spot in the East. The Blue Jackets and the Red Wings (who have 88 points) also have a game in-hand on Toronto, who plays their 80th game of the season tonight at Times Palace.

Toronto has a 2.1% chance of still making the playoffs according to Sports Club Stats, but you have to think that (making it) would require the Leafs winning their next three games as well as a lot of help by way of Columbus or Detroit falling on their ass and losing all four of their remaining games.

In a way, Toronto's successes can compare to Rocky Balboa in the original "Rocky" movie - no, not the bum-from-the-neighborhood aspect, but the keep-getting-hit-and-enduring aspect of their game.  The Leafs suck and have sucked at limiting shots and opponent opportunities.  You can find a great piece over at Pension Plan Puppets about the flaw in Randy Carlyle's defensive system (the idea he was implementing a defensive system.)  A season worth of proverbial shots-to-the-head and zero use of hand defending themselves has pushed the Leafs to the brink of elimination from playoff contention.

Could it have gone the other way? Quite easily, really. I don't think anyone expected the Lightning to end up in a top-three playoff spot; they expected Toronto to go along with Boston and Montreal. Things changed though, one team played responsible hockey on both ends of the ice while the other relied on goalies and the power play to compete. It worked, for a time.

Tonight is Tampa Bay's 79th game of the season, they end their hometand late in the week with a back-to-back affair (rare, isn't it? Back-to-back games that take place here in Tampa) with Columbus and Philadelphia.  The question at this point is if the Bolts will once again get caught looking ahead toward the playoffs and forget the contest at hand versus an opponent with dire need of a victory?

Practice on Monday saw the Lightning toying around with different line combinations, but there was no note of changes continuing at this morning's skate, though the last players off the ice today do make me think that some of the changes might actually play out: Ryan Malone, B.J. Crombeen both may be out tonight along with Keith Aulie, Mark Barberio and Cody Kunyk.

The (potential) scratching of Malone and Crombeen do make me scratch my head as you'd expect the Bolts to be more defensive and ready on the penalty-kill with Toronto's potency with the man-advantage (they're currently ranked 5th in the league in power play percentage.) Perhaps Jon Cooper has sound reasoning to start Richard Panik and Tom Pyatt over them (and it may be for the exact same reason that I would figure Malone and Crombeen would start - the penalty kill,) but nothing's been formally announced on the lineup at this point.

I think you can guess who the Lightning are starting in goal. He'll be opposed by James Reimer.

One last note: Joffrey Lupul is done for the season for Toronto. Perhaps losing a major cog in the roster will be a rallying point for the Leafs tonight and going forward? That or it'll be another revolution of the downward spiral they've been part of the last six weeks or so, perhaps the final revolution.

Other Game Coverage: