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Struggling Maple Leafs drop into wild-card spot as Red Wings heat up

Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs - Getty Images

The struggling Toronto Maple Leafs have dropped into a wild-card spot for the first time since early December after being jumped in the standings by the Detroit Red Wings.

The Red Wings picked up a third straight win on Wednesday, defeating the Florida Panthers 3-2 in overtime. Riding a seven-game points streak, Detroit has a 7-2-1 record in their past 10, moving back into the Atlantic Division's top three for the first time since Dec. 8. 

The Maple Leafs still hold two games in hand on Detroit, who are one point ahead in the standings, but the Red Wings' surge has coincided with a four-game winless skid for Toronto. The Maple Leafs have blown a lead in each of their past four losses, including two separate one-goal leads in Sunday's loss to the Red Wings, who rallied again to defeat the Panthers.

"We battled for 40 minutes, were down 2-1 going into the third, and had a chance," Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde said Wednesday night. "Give these guys credit, it is very hard to win in this league. It is hard to win on the road. It is hard beating a top-echelon team, especially trailing going into the third. Good on our guys."

While the Maple Leafs still have plenty of time to move back into the safety of an Atlantic Division playoff spot, the team currently finds itself in the crowded Eastern Conference wild-card race. 

Six teams are within five points of the Maple Leafs with two wild-card spots available. Toronto has a one-point advantage on the Tampa Bay Lightning, who hold the second wild-card spot with two more games played than the Maple Leafs. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are both two points back of Toronto with the same 42 games played, while the New York Islanders also have 48 points through 44 games. The New Jersey Devils are three points back 42 games into their season and the Montreal Canadiens are five points back of Toronto with two more games played. 

With just 13 wins in regulation this season, Toronto is behind every team in the race except for the Canadiens, who have 10. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted Wednesday that the team's recent downturn has followed a season-long trend. 

"It's sort of highlighted some of the issues that we have as a team in terms of closing these games out," Keefe said. "I don't think it's necessarily just an issue here in these days, it's all season long. That's why we've failed to win in regulation with the regularity that we'd want to see."

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Toronto has a blown one-, two- and three-goal leads over the past four games, but Keefe stated the team has proven its ability to close out games in the past.

"We have been an elite team in the regular season for a number of years," he added. "You don't get to that without finding a way to close out games. You don't win a playoff series against Tampa Bay - with how tight those games were and how hard we had to defend through those games to persevere - without the ability to be mentally tough.

"We have that within us."

With the Red Wings off Thursday, the Maple Leafs can jump back into the Atlantic's top three with a win over the Calgary Flames

Viewers in the Maple Leafs region can watch Toronto vs. Calgary LIVE on TSN4, and the TSN App at 9pm ET.