What a difference 10 days can make.
A listless performance against New Jersey on Sundaty night led to Toronto's fifth consecutive loss. As a result, the Leafs' postseason chances have dwindled to just 34.5 percent today, forcing a team that was comfortably situated as an Atlantic Division qualifier just a few days ago into a battle for its life as the regular season winds down.
Even after their stumble, the Leafs have 80 points, good enough for the second wild card berth in the Eastern Conference ... for now, anyway. It's better to be in than out, but Toronto is vulnerable. The Leafs have played 73 games, one more than the Washington Capitals (31.8 percent), who trail them by one point, and two above Columbus (56.6 percent).
It's no surprise that these clubs find themselves battling each other for the scraps. All three are middle of the road teams, predestined for the murky fringes by their youth (Jackets) or uneven foundations (Caps and Leafs). Add in an injury-ravaged Red Wings team (68.9 percent) and an underperforming Rangers squad (95 percent) that is currently holding down the third spot in the Metropolitan Division and you have five clubs challenging for three spots in the East.
It's oversimplistic to say that every game is now a must-win for these teams, but consistency will be a key down the stretch. New York has a decent head of steam -- 6-3-1 in its last 10 -- and the easiest schedule, facing just four playoff-bound teams in its remaining 10 contests. But one of those rates among the key games this week because it has serious postseason implications.
Here are the four must-watch matches:
Tuesday, March 25: Red Wings at Blue Jackets (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN2, NBCSN, FS-D)
Columbus has an edge over Detroit in regulation/overtime wins (31-28), but trails the Wings by two in the standings. This one isn't just a four-pointer, it's one that could help define the tiebreak if the two clubs end up deadlocked after 82 games.
Tuesday, March 25: Kings at Capitals (7 p.m.; FS-W CSN-DC)
The Caps might have the toughest schedule down the stretch, and not simply because they have to face the Kings, Bruins, Blues and Blackhawks. Washington's biggest obstacle may be its lack of four-point games. Of the Caps' 10 remaining contests, not one pits them against a team that they're trying to overtake. They need help from around the league to secure their postseason spot, but first need to take care of business. That starts Tuesday night with a rematch against a Los Angeles team that beat them in a shootout at the Staples Center last Thursday.
Wednesday, March 26: Flyers at Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN)
The Flyers are red hot, winners of five straight, but the Blueshirts are on a roll of their own, taking three in a row to stay within a point of Philly for second in the Metro heading into Monday night's action. Their games -- Flyers hosting the Kings while the Rangers take on the Coyotes -- could change the pecking order, but they won't alter the key number: two. That's how many games the Flyers have in hand over the Rangers, making Wednesday's showdown so critical for New York. Lose that one and their focus shifts from trying to move up the standings to trying to stave off their pursuers.
Saturday, March 29: Red Wings at Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET; CBC, NHL Network, FS-D)This may be the last gasp effort for the Leafs, who need to secure points against St. Louis at home and then Philadelphia on the road for this one to remain pivotal. It'll be the second game of a back-to-back for Toronto, highlighting the need to get starting goalie Jonathan Bernier back into the lineup sometime this week. Backup James Reimer has been struggling and the subject of some controversy.