With a victory over the Bruins in Boston on Saturday, the Maple Leafs could have climbed within an attainable seven points of the No. 1 team in the Atlantic Division.
Three days later they are 13 points back and barely within shouting distance of first. It looks more and more like the undertaking of overtaking the Bruins is a fool’s errand.
Instead of looking forward at this point, Toronto should be looking back, specifically at the Lightning. With a 4-1 win at Seattle on Monday, the Lightning are now just two points behind the Maple Leafs – and have played two fewer games.
It says something about the fierce competition within the division and something about Toronto itself. This appears to be the club’s best incarnation in a while – and yet at 26-11-7 and 59 points after 44 games it is behind last year’s pace.
Few could have predicted that Boston would play at an NHL-record level to this point, but the Lightning is just doing what it always does. Grinds on, never seems to get too nervous and is in the thick of it at the end.
It is partially unreasonable to expect a repeat of the best regular season in Maple Leafs history and here we are. They have lost two in a row within the Atlantic – to Detroit last Thursday as well as Boston – and face the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. On Thursday the Winnipeg Jets, now first in the Central Division, come to town.
Toronto headed into the playoffs last year with a head of steam and home-ice advantage – and still lost its first-round series against Tampa Bay. It should – and certainly will – try to do everything possible to stay ahead of the Lightning to keep its postseason journey from becoming even more difficult.
We all know how that has gone recently.
The short-on-defence home team could possibly be without blueliner Rasmus Sandin and centre Pontus Holmberg on Tuesday. Both missed practice on Monday as a flu bug has begun to spread within the team.
“We have gotten a lot better at preventing that the last few years, but once it starts, it is hard to slow down,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It’s that time of year.”
Also, Maple Leafs forward Nick Robertson has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery, the team announced Monday, with the 21-year-old expected to be out of action for six months. Robertson sustained a shoulder injury after taking a hit from Kings defenceman Matt Roy on Dec. 8.
Ilya Samsonov (12-4-1 with a .914 save percentage) will start in goal for Toronto Tuesday. The Panthers, who are fourth but far back in the Atlantic, may start AHL callup Alex Lyon because their backup, Spencer Knight, is on the injured reserve list.
Sergei Bobrovsky played for Florida in a 4-1 victory at Buffalo on Martin Luther King Day. Matthew Tkachuk had three assists in the triumph and now has 34 on the season.
“All points are important, but there is a little more on the line when you play teams from within the division,” Morgan Rielly, the defenceman, said Monday. “The games are tough. Those matchups are important.”
The Maple Leafs came out of Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Boston feeling good about themselves.
“It was tight the whole way through,” Auston Matthews said. “Over all I think we did a lot of good things.”
The Bruins players, who have had an oversized hand in inflicting pain on their main Ontario rival, heaped praise on them.
Brad Marchand called them a “legit contender” and said, “It is only a matter of time for them.”
“They are going to go deep,” Marchand said. “They are just too talented.”
That’s either nice or smoke being blown somewhere.
“It’s not just Boston and Tampa,” Keefe said. “All the teams in our division are really pushing or at different times have put together really good stretches.
“There not a lot free nights for sure.”
Matthews scored a goal late to tie the game against the Bruins and celebrated quite jubilantly. It was a joyous moment in a loss.
Keefe offered on Saturday that Toronto is good enough to compete against anyone, and then said later, “We were not quite good enough.”
The Maple Leafs have been very good. The problem is that the Bruins are better and the Lightning are getting very close in the rear-view mirror.
With a report from The Canadian Press