The Toronto Maple Leafs may be the National Hockey League’s darling group of hockey students but they are facing their toughest midterm exams over the next six days.
Games on Saturday against the Boston Bruins at home and next Thursday on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning will show if the Maple Leafs really are one of the league’s elite teams, ready to be considered a Stanley Cup contender. Right now, despite their lofty standing as the fourth-best team overall before Friday’s games with a 28-13-2 record, the indicators are not good.
Over the last month the Leafs have not had much trouble mowing down the teams they are supposed to beat, such as the New Jersey Devils, dispatched 4-2 Thursday night after a wobbly second period. But it’s a different story when it comes to the NHL’s better teams.
In five games against teams in the top 12 in the league since Dec. 8, the Leafs have an embarrassing 1-4 record and were outscored 20-8. This may be an arbitrary standard but among those losses were two to their Atlantic Division rivals, the Bruins and Lightning. Those are teams the Leafs have to handle if they are to get past the second round of the playoffs.
Saturday’s home game against the Bruins is the fourth and final one of the regular season. The Bruins have two wins and a loss against the Leafs and are 7-3 in their last 10 games, having fought through a nasty stretch of injuries.
It is as certain as anything can be in sports that the Leafs will open this year’s playoffs against the Bruins, as the Lightning are not about to be caught by anyone for the division lead. Given the memories of last year’s third-period sag in losing game seven of their first-round series to the Bruins and, for two Leafs at least, that even-worse game-seven collapse to the Bruins in 2013 – both in the cauldron of sound that is the TD Garden – the Leafs should be well aware of the need to finish second in the Atlantic Division and secure home-ice advantage in the first playoff round.
“It just gives you a little more incentive, a little more energy,” centre Nazem Kadri, who along with Jake Gardiner is one of two Leafs left from that 2013 team, said of home advantage in the postseason. “You feel the support a little more. Nobody wants to go into an opposing team’s building in a game seven and try to win that game. That’s what we work all season for.” z
But to do so, the Leafs will have to start playing the way head coach Mike Babcock preaches they need to in order to compete with the best teams. Playing “heavy” and “putting your work ethic ahead of your skill,” are Babcock’s favourite expressions in that regard.
This does not mean banging heads and bodies into the boards. It means eluding the opposition’s fore-checking in your own end to get the puck moving. Then using your speed, skill and smarts to get through the neutral-zone forest of bodies the Leafs’ best opponents always put up and keeping the puck in the offensive zone with your own aggressive fore-checking.
If any of the Leafs aren’t sure about this, all they have to do is listen to what Babcock had to say about the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, the one that did more to eliminate them last spring than any other.
“What I really like about them is not only their skill, they put their work ethic in front of their skill,” Babcock said. “They’re good in the faceoff circle, they play right, they come at you with speed and grit and determination.
“I think they’re a good example for our guys. You know if you want to be an elite player you’ve got to play better.”
But Kadri sounded like a guy who needs some convincing this is a big game.
“For me it’s still early,” he said. “Teams are going to be making adjustments and are going to change throughout the later months and the start of the playoffs. It will be a good measuring stick but I think there’ll be some changes come playoff time.”
One reason for the equivocating is the Leafs may not be quite up to scratch for Saturday’s game. Babcock backed off his earlier assertion that goaltender Frederik Andersen will not be able to play until Monday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche but his chances of starting against the Bruins are still iffy. “We’ll know who’s starting [Saturday morning] at about 11 o’clock,” Babcock said.
If Andersen can’t go, it will be Michael Hutchinson again because Garret Sparks is still out with a concussion.
The Leafs players made a series of videos, some funnier than others, for social media in a bid to get defenceman Morgan Rielly into the NHL all-star game as the last man elected by the fans. The effort failed (Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres was the Atlantic Division winner) but Rielly appreciated the gesture.
His favourite video? One from his defensive partner.
“It was Ron Hainsey, who purposely made it so we couldn’t share it with the public,” Rielly said. “But I have it. I’ll have it for a while.”