Just like every year since the lockout, the Leafs have had a terrific run, only to have their chances at postseason play snuffed out within sight of the finish line. We've had our share of late-season heroes and valiant battles, but ultimately the ledger reads: six seasons, no playoffs.
But wasn't this season different? We were doing much more than winning once the pressure was off this year - we were winning while it still counted. Isn't that something unlike what we have done before? After the jump, I say: maaaybe...
I'll preface this by admitting that I am no statistical analyst. (I'm just some guy with a spreadsheet and too much time.) But let's take a rudimentary look at the Leafs' record.
What has often been pointed out over the last few weeks is the clip at which the boys in blue and white have racked up the wins since the All-Star break. They recorded 18 wins, 7 losses and 5 overtime losses between the All-Star game at the end of January and the day they were eliminated. It is true that that record is the best over the comparable period - between the Olympic or All-Star break and elimination - since the lockout.
2006: 13-7-3 or 1.26 points per game
2007: 18-10-5 or 1.24 PPG (the year we came closest)
2008: 15-10-2 or 1.19 PPG
2009: 14-10-5 or 1.14 PPG (the worst in this period)
2010: 9-5-2 or 1.25 PPG (not bad, really)
2011: 18-7-5 or 1.37 PPG (far and away the best)
"Performing when the pressure is off" is a charge often levelled at the Leafs, but if you determine the pressure as still being on while they stay in the playoff hunt, and particularly in the later stages of the race, they have not done too badly in recent years.
Add in the period immediately preceding the All-Star break and stretch back to the start of January, when Optimus took up residence in net, and you supposedly have a body of work representative of the "new" Leafs, the team that (as we're often told) will march on the following season. But between January 1 and the break:
2006: 5-11-2 or 0.67 PPG
2007:5-4-0 or 1.11 PPG (the best)
2008: 5-7-0 or 0.83 PPG
2009: 2-6-2 or 0.60 PPG
2010: 5-13-2 or 0.60 PPG (oh God, what smells?)
2011: 6-6-1 or 1.00 PPG (shrug)
The year we were eliminated earliest in the schedule - 2009, after game 76 - speaks for itself in both sets of results. Likewise the year we came closest - 2007, on the last night of the season. But this year, between January 1 and the All-Star game, was nothing special in and of itself.
What is most remarkable is the way in which the Leafs have turned it around this year after enduring what could in fact be the worst first half of a season they have recently produced. That, in both senses, is quite a feat.
2005: 22-14-3 or 1.21 PPG
2006: 17-17-6 or 1.00 PPG
2007: 15-16-8 or 0.97 PPG
2008: 15-16-6 or 0.97 PPG
2009: 14-18-9 or 0.95 PPG (certainly pretty mediocre)
2010: 13-19-4 or 0.83 PPG (well, sh**balls)
So ultimately, the only argument to defeat the old "the Leafs only perform when the pressure's off" is the even older "they shot themselves in the foot early on in the season". In fact, if you take the period before Reimer's debut in January, this year's Leafs were somehow even worse than last year's. Personally, I would not have thought such an achievement possible, but there you go.
What conclusions can be drawn? As I hinted in the introduction: two. Either this is the same old team with the same old problems and slight deviations from the recent mean (down early in the season and up more recently); or these Leafs are different, have been since January 1, and hopefully will have received enough of a kick in the pants this year that they will continue onwards and upwards in 2011-12.
Please feel free to correct, criticise, corroborate, comment or congratulate as you see fit.