TORONTO — The Maple Leafs' increasingly wobbly defence will get some help in a big showdown against the Bruins on Monday night.
Connor Carrick returns from an 11-game absence due to an upper-body injury, set to join Morgan Rielly as Toronto tries to track down Boston in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Leafs (79 points) can pull to within one point of the Bruins (82) with a regulation victory at Air Canada Centre. They've beaten their original-six foe in all three meetings so far this season, including a 6-5 win in Boston in early February.
Toronto, with a game in hand on Boston, is currently holding down the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Nazem Kadri said the club had their eyes all over the standings.
"Look up, look down, sideways — it don't matter, we're looking all over the place," Kadri said of the playoff chase. "We're trying to catch teams above us and we're aware of teams that are right on our heels so we've got to separate ourselves and try to catch teams above us."
The Leafs enter Monday's action only one point up on the New York Islanders (78) and two ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning (77).
Injured on Feb. 21 against Winnipeg, Carrick should offer some stability to a Leafs defence that head coach Mike Babcock has been shuffling around warily in recent weeks.
He employed a number of different combinations against the Chicago Blackhawks over the weekend, including Jake Gardiner and rookie Nikita Zaitsev against a Patrick Kane-led line. Kane went scoreless in 23 minutes as Babcock slightly eased duties for Rielly in the 2-1 overtime loss.
Alexey Marchenko will exit the lineup with Carrick returning, Roman Polak sliding back to play from frequent duties alongside Rielly to play with fellow veteran Matt Hunwick.
Toronto's defence is expected to look as follows as the Bruins: Gardiner-Zaitsev; Rielly-Carrick; Hunwick-Polak.
Carrick has played most of the season with Gardiner (54 per cent possession as a pair), showing well in brief duty with Rielly (54 per cent).
"It's probably at a 110 per cent pace of what the game was played at when I was injured," Carrick said. "Teams are going to be playing fast, trying to execute quickly. I think the battle is to get that flow of the game, keep the rhythm, stay out of your own head — just play hockey."