If Toronto Maple Leafs fans are wondering exactly when the stretch drive to the NHL playoffs begins, Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens serves as the best starting point.
The floundering Canadiens, 2-7-1 in February and finding it awfully hard to score goals these days, were barely hanging on to first place in the Atlantic Division before Friday's games. With 22 games left in the regular season, the Leafs sat in third place, four points behind the Habs with a game in hand. The second-place Ottawa Senators would move into a tie in points with the Canadiens with a win Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
A win on Saturday over the Habs would put the Leafs into the thick of the fight for first place in the division. A loss puts them back in the scramble for either third or the last Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot.
Considering the Leafs' recent history as a punching bag in order to get the best-possible draft position, and that they have only one appearance in the playoffs since 2004, just being in this position is a welcome change for the players.
"It's fun to come to the rink every day, you look at the standings and see how tight things are," Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk said. "Every play matters out there on the ice.
"Those are the games you want to play in and it's exciting to play those games."
Despite the Canadiens' February woes, in which they've scored a paltry 14 goals, the Habs are not an easy mark for the Leafs. They have three wins in as many games against Toronto this season. But their last win over the Leafs was Jan. 7, which marked the start of a long stretch of trouble for the Canadiens that led to head coach Michel Therrien being fired on Feb. 14 and replaced by Claude Julien.
Even though the Leafs can say they took five of a possible six points in their past three games, with two wins and an overtime loss, they have their own wobbles to be concerned about. They have lost four of their past seven games, they grabbed a point from a shootout loss Thursday to the New York Rangers only because goaltender Frederik Andersen was outstanding, and they are having goal-scoring troubles of their own at times.
The big concern now is van Riemsdyk, who has not scored a goal in 10 games, and linemates Tyler Bozak and Connor Brown. Since Brown replaced the injured Mitch Marner three games ago, the line has not clicked. Also on head coach Mike Babcock's watch list is the other veteran line of centre Nazem Kadri and wingers Leo Komarov and Josh Leivo.
"That line wasn't as good [Thursday] night," Babcock said of Bozak's line, which was excused from Friday's practice to rest for the Canadiens game. "Neither was [Kadri's] group. Those things happen and someone else has to pick them up."
What worries Babcock is not the actual lack of scoring from Bozak, van Riemsdyk and Brown but their overall work in the offensive zone.
"I don't measure guys on how many they score," the coach said. "I measure on how hard they compete, how much they have the puck and how many shifts they're in on and on the puck.
"If you want to score and if you're on the puck, you'll score. The biggest thing is to compete in the O-zone."
Van Riemsdyk thinks in that respect, he and his linemates are on the right track. He says he does not believe the loss of Marner, who will not be able to play Saturday, has hurt their productivity.
"We've been playing a bit more north-south [with Brown]," van Riemsdyk said. "We've been a little off in terms of converting some of the chances but I think we've done a good job creating and carrying the play."