It was the type of ugly, meaningless game late in the regular season the Toronto Maple Leafs have become all too familiar with the past few years.
Only this time, rather than simply playing out the string, the two points not being vital was actually a good thing for Toronto.
The Leafs eked out a tedious 2-0 win over the New Jersey Devils on Monday night, getting thumped 31-13 on the shot clock in what may have been one of the lower entertainment value games in the NHL on the year.
Curiously enough, however, the best part out of the sludge of 60 minutes of hockey for Toronto – other than another terrific outing for goalie James Reimer and Phil Kessel’s lazer of a winner with six minutes to play – was the list of those who weren’t even on the ice.
Despite being cleared to play from his head injury, for example, assistant captain Joffrey Lupul was rested for a fifth straight game as a just-in-case measure.
“We just want to make sure we’re guarding ourselves on the side of caution,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle explained.
Defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, meanwhile, was sat out at the last minute with what the team called a “lower-body injury” that is likely related to on-and-off hip issues he has battled all year.
Carlyle has also been experimenting with ice time of late, giving youngster Jake Gardiner nearly 24 minutes in a 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and then elevating him to the first pairing with captain Dion Phaneuf for Monday’s game.
And Nazem Kadri, who has been hovering around 16 minutes a game all year, led all forwards that night with almost 19.
These are the kind of luxuries a team can afford when, with just six games to play, a playoff spot is all but guaranteed.
The skeptics out there can consider the following: Even before the win, the Leafs were seven points clear of ninth in the East and given a 99.94-per-cent chance of making the postseason by sportsclubstats.com.
That same site also projected that even if Toronto went 0-7-0 to close the year – including Monday’s game – it would have a not insignificant 60-per-cent chance of getting in.
Earning two points in just this one game over the Devils, in other words, is pretty much all that was needed to guarantee the Leafs move onto the postseason for the first time in nine years, with even an 0-6-0 finish good for a 95-per-cent chance of finally making it.
Their first chance to clinch comes right away, too, with a Leafs win Tuesday night in Washington combined with a Winnipeg Jets loss in regulation enough to guarantee it.
Backing into the playoffs also doesn’t appear to be on the agenda, with Toronto going an incredible 9-1-4 in their last 14 games.
In that stretch, the Leafs even pulled out five of six points in three games against their likely first round opponents – Boston and Montreal – and just kept climbing their way up the standings.
“We’re on a high right now,” Kadri said. “So we’ve just got to keep it going. Normally when you’re having some success, you take your foot off the gas pedal. But that’s what we’re trying not to do.
“We’re trying to be one of the best teams in the league. I think it’s working for us, and we’re knocking off some pretty good teams as well. We’re definitely making a statement to a lot of teams.”
The statement on Monday wasn’t exactly a defiant one, with the Eastern Conference finalists of a year ago controlling the play throughout but simply unable to beat Reimer.
The Devils, a desperate team on the fringes of the playoff race and on a 10-game losing streak, allowed just three Toronto shots in the first period and two in the second, continuing a trend where the Leafs have been outshot more than all but the woeful Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres this season.
But this has been Toronto’s script all season, relying on terrific goaltending and one of the best penalty kills in the league to win, killing off four boneheaded penalties in this one (one by Colton Orr and three by newcomer Ryan O’Byrne) to set up Kessel’s winner on a late power play.
Jay McClement, one of the PK workhorses, then salted it away with an empty-netter.
“You just have to turn the page and know we’re going to have to turn the page and play a better game tomorrow night,” Carlyle said, as he praised only Reimer’s play. “This one we can’t change what happened. We got two points, and we’re moving on.”
Now, unexpectedly, the playoffs are just a matter of waiting two weeks until they arrive.
And, for all their warts, the Leafs should be a healthy and confident group when they finally do.
“We want to have the best record possible going into the playoffs,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “You can’t go into the playoffs and just turn on a switch. We have to make sure we’re on top of our game going in.”