On December 27th, right here, I professed that the Leafs’ next sixteen games would determine whether or not they had the jam to reach the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At that time, they sat thirteenth in the Eastern Conference, ten points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot. Today, after 50 games (and despite a gritty win v. Florida on Tuesday night), the Leafs are in twelfth spot, 12 points behind Atlanta for the final berth. And, even though they have 32 regular-season games remaining, you can stick a fork in the Leafs’ playoff chances…’cause they’re done.

It pains me more than a little to write that it’s time to look to next season for the Leafs. Since I wrote that December 27th piece, the Leafs have collected seven wins, eight losses and one shootout loss (v. Calgary). Frankly, they were cruising along nicely in their post-Christmas run right up until they strolled into Madison Square Garden on January 19th. I do not need to remind you, nor Jonas Gustavsson, nor Marian Gaborik, what happened that disastrous/wonderful night. And that debacle began a slide of four losses in five games into the All-Star Break. Game over.

And what’s doubly frustrating is that, following their huge three-wins-in-four-games western trip, the Leafs were poised to make a solid climb toward eighth spot. Then, pffffffft – like an overpaid, over-idolized  balloon.

It’s still troubling that they sent James Reimer back to the Marlies after his loss in Phoenix on January 13th. Over the next four games, J-S Giguère and Gustavsson gave up 19 goals. Once again this season, Toronto’s goaltending has been a let-down. Big time.

If I’m in Ron Wilson’s most-hated-coach-in-the-NHL shoes, I’d tell Reimer, “You’re my guy from here on in, kid.” Of course, there’s a serious risk there. The risk that Reimer gets repeatedly pummelled by the opposition and finishes the season as a quivering mass. Same thing that’s happened to literally hundreds of NHL goaltenders before him.

The Leafs (read Wilson) seemed bound and determined to begin this season with a pattern of Jiggy playing two, Gustavsson playing one. In fact, they did just that right up until Giguère’s groin exploded on November 16th v. Nashville. Since then, the Leafs’ goaltending has been the proverbial dog’s breakfast. And that might be being kind.

Now, the Leafs have the chance to resume a pattern. Get Reimer in there until he hits a tough spot, then Jiggy’s ready to step in. Does this club need more scoring up front? You bet they do. Could the six regular defenceman have played more consistently this season? Sure.

But when you bunch all that with incredibly inconsistent goaltending, you have a recipe for…twelfth in the East. And it’s such a shame, because I continue to think that this club has the potential to be so much better than they’ve shown.

Then again, you could probably say that about 20 other teams in the NHL every single season. Either way, the Leafs have missed the playoffs yet again.