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5-Game Process: The more things change edition

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The Leafs are winning more than they ever have in the 82-game era, but they’re in a familiar place.

NHL: DEC 13 Maple Leafs at Lightning Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs have played 40 games, so it’s time to check in on their five-game points pace. They have 54 points right now, and that means they’re at 1.35, an hair of a decrease from last time when it was 1.37. To put that in perspective, they’re one win or two points off of the 1.4 points per game pace.

So far in the standard five-game chunks, they’ve never dipped below the “just make the playoffs” mark of six points.

Last year, the Leafs didn’t get to 54 points until game 46, so they are well ahead of that historic year. The Leafs are, therefore, heading for a new benchmark if they keep on like they are.

When we look at the rolling five-game line of points, we can see a few things: The Leafs have hit 10 points three times, so there’s been three five-game win streaks. They’ve never dipped below four points in five games, and they’ve only hit that mark three times since they played game five. The downturn that came last year in the winter is not materializing this year.

It would take a serious downturn now to slide back to last year’s numbers.

The Leafs are currently being chased for leader of the non-Tampa portion of the NHL by Calgary (1.28 pts/game), Winnipeg (1.33) and Vegas (1.20). The closest Eastern team is Washington at 1.30 points per game, and Pittsburgh is next at 1.25. Funny who’s come on strong lately, isn’t it? But also, none of those teams, save Winnipeg are really coming close to the Leafs. The Leafs also have a goal differential five more than their nearest competitor, Calgary.

All of that is great, but they’re still only second in the Atlantic, and the Lightning seem to have run away with this season and created their own standard for winning. As in: It’s all they ever do.

They have 66 points in 41 games or 1.61 points per game. Last year, Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy with 1.42 points per game. So can Tampa keep this up? In some ways, it doesn’t matter. They already have a 12 point spread on the Leafs, which is the most astonishing thing when you consider that the Leafs are in second place in the NHL, not just the division. Tampa won’t be giving those points back even if they play like Team Russia in the early part of a tournament the rest of the year.

However, the season isn’t over at the half-way point.

Last year, at 40 games played, the Leafs were third in the Atlantic and just in the process of deciding if they could ever catch Boston and Tampa, or if they should even try. Part of the winter downturn last year was some tinkering with the team’s lines, some goalie problems and no real sense of urgency about winning when the hill looked too high to climb. Or so it seemed, at any rate.

And yet, as Toronto snapped out of it, both Tampa and Boston started to hit some bumps in the road and the race in the Atlantic became real, one that Boston couldn’t win in the end.

The Lightning really aren’t likely to keep winning at 1.6 points per game. It’s not impossible, but it’s also really not probable, not when they spend the second half of the season playing mostly in the Eastern Conference.

Same goes for Toronto, though. The season doesn’t get easier — not until the last dozen games or so. Elliotte Friedman said on the broadcast of Wednesday’s game vs the Wild that he thought the Leafs would use this period of time to do some tinkering, play Frederik Andersen less (even if they don’t have to), and try out new deployments of players.

At the moment it looks like there is no real challenger coming from below. Boston has fewer injured players, but they haven’t won enough for anything but the most tenuous hold on third place. So, it seems like a good time to solidify the second power play unit, maybe see if Igor Ozhiganov really can play PK, and consider the trade deadline options. There is, however, no Travis Dermott and Andreas Johnsson lurking in the AHL to storm in and liven up the team.

The space between Toronto and the triumvirate of Boston, Montréal and Buffalo will only remain if the Leafs keep up their points pace. Both the Leafs and the Lighting have to play those three teams a lot while they are fighting for position over the second half of the season. It looks like the Leafs can simply coast along and stay in second, but a lot can happen in 42 games. It sure did last year. I don’t buy the idea that the Leafs can coast while they revert to training camp mode.

The Next Five Games

Toronto welcomes Vancouver on Saturday, and unfortunately they seem to have lost Elias Pettersson to injury, so their one big offensive threat is gone. On Monday next week, Nashville comes calling, and then on Thursday the Leafs go to New Jersey to dance with the Devils in their only road game of this segment.

Boston (ugh) shows up on January 12 on HNIC and then Colorado the next Monday. They’re extremely similar teams in one way — all their goals come from three guys — but very different in another — Boston checks a lot more effectively, as we all know.

So the travel and spacing of the games is ideal for a period of goalie fluctuation, but there are three tough teams to play out of five.

By the end of this segment, the Leafs need to have sorted out that second power play unit, know who their goalies are, and be ready to play a back-to-back in games 46 and 47. It’s possible Zach Hyman comes back before game 45 rolls around as well. Once that’s done, the time for tinkering might be over.