Ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ regular-season finale, coach Randy Carlyle was asked to assess his squad heading into the playoffs.
“We know we can compete with good teams if we play our game to our level,” he said. “When we stray away from it, we’re very very ordinary or less than ordinary.”
Toronto was less than ordinary Saturday night in a sluggish 4-1 loss to the visiting Montreal Canadiens. It was a flat, error-riddled performance the Leafs can’t wait to put behind them.
“The mindset now is to move on,” said defenceman Mark Fraser. “Thankfully, we’re in a position where we can.”
Where they are headed in the playoffs won’t be determined until the outcome of the Ottawa Senators game at Boston on Sunday night.
Toronto (26-17-5) will finish fifth no matter the result. But Sunday’s game will decide who wins the Northeast Division and who ends up fourth to face the Leafs.
A Boston win and Toronto will meet the Canadiens in the playoffs for the first time since 1979. Any other outcome would result in the Leafs facing the Bruins.
Should the Leafs meet the Habs, Montreal enters with a mental boost after dominating in Toronto on Saturday while No. 1 goalie Carey Price took it easy on the bench.
The Canadiens believe they offered a compelling reply to Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul’s pre-game assessment of why Toronto had won three of four games against the Habs ahead of Saturday’s meeting.
“We’re physically a lot bigger and stronger,” Lupul said. “They have a lot of speed and skill and Price is a difference-maker. I know he’s a little bit off his game right now but I would expect him to find it. He’s a competitive guy.
“But our thing is getting pucks in deep on them. Finish checks, especially on lots of the smaller, skilled players. Over a long series that pays off.”
Lupul was not looking to mix things up. Asked about the matchup, he offered some considered analysis and made a point of calling Montreal a solid team that had won home-ice advantage in the playoffs for a reason. But his comments did not go unnoticed in the Canadiens’ dressing room, who saw it as insulting.
“I always believe you’ve got to stay humble and if you want to do a lot of trash-talking in the media, it might come back to bite you,” said Habs forward Lars Eller, who had a goal and two assists Saturday. “The game is not played on the weight scale or it’s not a number on a piece of paper. It’s not won in the gym either. It’s won on the ice. Whoever wants it more gets it.”
The Leafs were given the day off Sunday, possibly to avoid media questions about a playoff opponent that had not been decided yet. Or perhaps to help rid themselves of the taste of their sour Saturday night performance.
Caryle is also aware of the need to rest his players even if – as he noted prior to the Habs’ game – they had a relatively relaxing schedule during a Florida road trip earlier in the week.
“You cannot expect your players to give you 110 per cent if they’re not 100 per cent rested,” he said after a 35-minute practice Friday. “They have to have rest and nutrition.”
The absence of first-line centre Tyler Bozak (upper body injury) for the second game in a row is a concern. Toronto needs to up its attack.
Getting outshot has been a worrying trend of late. Toronto managed just one shot in the second period against the Canadiens.
The Leafs have lost four of their last six, during which they have been outshot 213-135 and outscored 20-15.
There are more questions than answers as Toronto prepares for the post-season for the first time in nine years.
“I was mystified tonight,” Caryle said in the aftermath of Saturday’s loss.