The worst thing the Toronto Maple Leafs could do Tuesday night is regard their game against the Florida Panthers as a respite from the recent stretch that saw them play five of the NHL's toughest teams in the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The woeful Panthers may be seventh in the Atlantic Division but the Leafs went 1-4 against the cream of the NHL in the last nine days, so they sit just three rungs above them on the division ladder. Third place and an assured Eastern Conference playoff spot is four points away from the 17-15-3 Leafs, so taking the 12-17-5 Panthers for granted is not an option.
"This is a game where we've got to get back to work," said Leaf forward David Clarkson of Tuesday's game at the Air Canada Centre, which closes a back-to-back, road-and-home set for the Leafs following Monday's 3-1 loss to the Penguins. "Every point is so important, it doesn't matter where a team is in the standings, you have to work hard."
Clarkson himself will be getting back to work following his latest NHL suspension. He served two games for a head shot on Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka, bringing to 12 the number of games he has lost to suspension in his debut season for his hometown Leafs. Throw in the paltry two goals and four assists Clarkson has in the 23 games he's managed to play and it is hard to think of a bigger free-agent bust in recent memory.
Since the injury bug is not finished with the Leafs, Clarkson will step into the lineup for forward Jerry D'Amigo. He sustained what appeared to be a shoulder injury in Monday's loss in Pittsburgh, although there was no further word from the Leafs about the injury on Tuesday.
It is hard to imagine saying this after Clarkson signed his seven-year contract that comes with a salary-cap hit of $5.25-million, but swapping him in the lineup for D'Amigo, who was called up from the Toronto Marlies farm team on Dec. 5, is definitely not an upgrade. D'Amigo made himself useful with his defensive game, particularly against Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins in the last four days.
While Clarkson was not expected to match his 30-goal season with the New Jersey Devils of a couple of years ago, he was expected to provide some grit along the boards and around the net. Instead, he's been a careless player and one who has trouble keeping up to the play.
"I never would have drawn it up this way," Clarkson said. "I've never been suspended in my career. The hardest thing to do is watch your team play, either in your own building or you're watching with your family. You get fidgety on the couch, sometimes you elbow your wife a couple times because you're trying to help the guys."
There was no word on whether Mrs. Clarkson issued her own suspension.
It is difficult to say who will start in goal for the Leafs against the Panthers. Jonathan Bernier, who had the last two starts, did not take part in the Leafs' optional game-day skate while James Reimer did, so Bernier may get the call again.
Scott Clemmensen will start in goal for the Panthers.