Commentary

Why the Leafs must win right now

Updated: January 6, 2012, 10:29 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- These are the points the Toronto Maple Leafs have to bank this month if they have any hope of playing their first postseason game in eight calendar years.

The Leafs, 4-0 winners over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, have entered the new year with nine of their first 10 games at home, a critical if not season-defining stretch that will go a long way in deciding their fate.

A lackluster 4-6-3 December knocked the Leafs out of a playoff spot they had held since October, a nervous yet all-too-familiar feeling for the die-hards in the NHL's biggest market.

This is the month in their season when the Leafs can distance themselves from the team that teased but ultimately thoroughly disappointed its fans since the lockout. Year after year, the Leafs had late-season surges, but it was always too late.

Win this month, and people will know this Leafs team is finally different.

"We got caught last year playing catch-up down the stretch, and it seemed like we were winning 80 percent of our games but not making up ground on teams," said first-line winger Joffrey Lupul, who had an assist Thursday night. "We don't want to be in that situation again."

Two games into this important stretch, make it four points out of four for the Leafs, who beat Tampa Bay 7-3 on Tuesday.

Notably, it was Jonas Gustavsson who was in net for both victories after coach Ron Wilson's sudden win-and-you're-in philosophy. Last season's surprise hero, James Reimer, just hasn't been the same netminder this time around, so the Leafs' coach is going to ride whomever is winning games.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gustavsson
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesJonas Gustavsson stopped all 24 shots versus the Jets for his second career shutout.

Right now, it's Gustavsson, who just two months ago pretty much had lost the confidence of the entire organization, to the point the Leafs' front office was shopping around for an upgrade in goal. Things change quickly in this league.

"I don't think so much about stuff like that," said Gustavsson, who earned the game's first star, following his 24-save shutout. "It's a long season; you can't think about that. You just have to keep going and believe what you're doing is the right thing, because then it's going to turn around for you."

Just as important for the Leafs is that they beat a Jets team that entered the night tied with them with 43 points in the Eastern Conference playoff race, which likely will feature a half-dozen teams for the final two or three playoff berths.

The ultimate goal for any of those teams over the next three months will be to not only get two points in those head-to-head matchups, but deny the opposition the overtime or shootout point.

Mission accomplished on this night by the Leafs, who outclassed a Jets squad that so far this season doesn't look at all the same team on the road as it does in the loud and friendly confines of MTS Centre.

The Jets fell to 5-10-4 on the road, which is nine wins short of a sparkling 14-6-1 home record. In other words, they're the Jets at home and the Atlanta Thrashers on the road. That doesn't bode well in a month in which they play nine of 13 games away from home.

"We got to battle a lot harder," Jets coach Claude Noel told ESPN.com. "Tonight, we didn't skate; we didn't manage the puck well enough; we played into their hands. We can't turn pucks over against them. They're back in your face when they've got it and you're chasing."

Winnipeg climbed back into the playoff race with a 10-3-1 December -- mostly home games -- which saw the team play its best defensive hockey of the season. Two games into the current four-game road trip, the Jets have been outscored 11-4 over a forgettable 27-hour period in Montreal and Toronto.

"We're going to have to defend better," Noel said. "Where we were really good at home is that we were harder to play against. We worked, we checked, we managed the puck better. We need to get back to that."

The tone was set just five minutes into the game when Jets blueliner Zach Bogosian was late getting to Phil Kessel in front of the net. The Leafs sniper potted his team-leading 23rd goal of the season to open the scoring. There were too many turnovers and missed assignments for a second straight night in the Jets' defensive zone, a malady that needs a quick cure.

If not, the Jets could be out of this playoff race just as quickly as they entered it.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.