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Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen (31) stretches for a tipped shot that goes wide of the net off the stick of Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Andrej Sustr (62). (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)
Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen (31) stretches for a tipped shot that goes wide of the net off the stick of Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Andrej Sustr (62). (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

After long season, Leafs happy to be in playoff hunt Add to ...

There is a favourite saying in the NHL, one that usually comes out when a team blows a lead in a playoff series and has to play the seventh and deciding game.

“If you had told me in October that at this time of year we can play one game to get into [insert next round of playoffs here], I’d take it six ways from Sunday,” is the way it goes.

A lot of the time, it’s just whistling past the graveyard because the players know they blew a great opportunity and the momentum is now with the opposition. And sometimes the players simply get down to business, put away the team they should have eliminated two games ago and move on.

Versions of that saying were going around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room on Friday, as they missed a great chance to clinch a playoff spot Thursday night, losing 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now, unless both the Lightning and the New York Islanders fall flat in their last two games of the regular season, the Leafs need to get at least two points out of their last two games, a back-to-back set Saturday and Sunday against the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, to be sure of landing the second wild-card spot in the conference.

“We’re not very happy with the way we played [Thursday night] but we have a chance to go out [Saturday night], win a big game, and then we have another chance to win and be in a great spot,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “There’s pressure on every team to make the playoffs, not just us.

“If you had told us in October we’re in position where we can win a game or two and be in a playoff spot, we’ll take that all the time.”

Just where the Toronto Maple Leafs fit on the spectrum of wishful thinking and taking care of business is unknown. Another saying heard around the NHL is that a team can be too young and oblivious to be scared of the pressure. But in Thursday’s loss to the injury-riddled Lightning, the Leafs had the look of those caught in the headlights of the pressure train.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock held a team meeting before Friday’s optional practice to impress on his young charges the need to forget about how excited a playoff-charged city is getting and to play the game they were taught. He doesn’t want them overwhelmed by the challenge of beating the Stanley Cup defending champion Penguins or the Blue Jackets.

“I think Tampa came out hard and we watched for a bit of the game,” said one of the Leafs’ eight rookies, forward Connor Brown. “It’s nice we still control our own fate and we did a good job all year to set ourselves up like this. You’ve got to take the positives and move on.

“We talked a lot about playing with confidence and poise. The moments get big and you’ve got to be able to push through it. Our structure and how we play is ingrained in us. It’s a matter of going out and executing. When the puck drops that [nervousness] pretty much takes care of itself.”

Babcock did not want to discuss what he told his youngsters but he did have an opinion on how they could lessen their anxiety – avoid the sports media.

“[The players] could go home and watch you guys all day long,” he said. “What I would suggest is watching the hunting channel. There’s nothing on the Leafs on the hunting channel. I listen to the country and western station and they don’t have anything on the Leafs.”

By losing to the Lightning, the Leafs can now pretty much forget about finishing second or third in the Atlantic Division and getting a better playoff matchup against either the Ottawa Senators or the Boston Bruins. As the second wild-card team, the Leafs would face the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the first-place overall Washington Capitals, hardly an appetizing prospect.

But there are a couple of factors going their way. It has already been determined the Penguins and Blue Jackets will play each other in the first round. Neither team can advance its position, so both may elect to rest a few key players and, in Columbus’s case, start the backup goaltender.

Penguins star Evgeni Malkin has been out since March 15 with a shoulder injury. He returned to a full practice on Friday and is expected to play in one of the team’s last two regular-season games. At this point, it looks as though that will be Sunday against the New York Rangers, which is good for the Leafs.

“We’ll see [Saturday], I think it’s close to playing,” Malkin said after taking limited contact in the Penguins’ optional practice at the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. “It’s close to playing, a couple more days.”

On the minus side, both the Lightning and the Islanders have easier opponents, none of whom have any compelling reason to win. The Lightning played the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night and finish with the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. The Islanders play the New Jersey Devils and the Senators.

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