TORONTO – With seven games to go in the regular season, the Maple Leafs have a better chance of staying put in the standings than they do of moving up or down. But when it comes to their performance on the ice, the Leafs have no intention of standing pat.
Toronto sits third in the Atlantic Division heading into Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, sandwiched seven points behind Boston and six points ahead of Montreal. If nothing changes, the Leafs will do battle with the Bruins two weeks from now in the first round of the playoffs.
The team views every game between then and now as critical.
“You want to be healthy [physically], you want to be feeling good, but our game has to be feeling good and we want that going in the right direction,” said John Tavares. “It’s the right balance of keeping that edge and intensity and focus on continuing to improve and being as best prepared as you can be, and then obviously you want to be able to physically be as fresh as you can be and feel as good as you can.”
To that end, things are looking up for Toronto in the health department, specifically on its battered blueline. Not only will Martin Marincin be back in the lineup Monday following a three-game absence because of the flu, retaking his spot on the Leafs’ third pairing with Justin Holl, but Travis Dermott has been cleared for contact nearly four weeks after suffering a shoulder injury and could return sometime this week.
Jake Gardiner is also making positive strides in his recovery from a back injury, but according to coach Mike Babcock, there’s still no timetable for his return. With that in mind, the Leafs plan to recall blueliner Calle Rosen from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies’ before next week.
Babcock had wanted to bring up Rosen when Gardiner’s ailment came to light last month, but Rosen hurt his foot blocking a shot on Feb. 22. He stepped back in for the Marlies on Sunday after missing 12 games, and registered one assist.
“Had a good chance to see him play,” said Babcock. “He hadn’t played in a while, so now he has a chance to practice, play one more game for them [potentially on Friday] and then we’ll try to give him an opportunity here. Depends on his health and what goes on down there.”
Rosen signed a free agent contract with the Leafs out of the Swedish Hockey League in spring 2017, honing his skills primarily in the AHL ever since. In 2017-18, Rosen collected 22 points in 62 regular-season games for the Marlies, then added another 11 points in 16 games en route to the franchise's first Calder Cup championship. He also appeared in four regular season games for the Leafs, tallying one assist.
This season, Rosen's emerged as the Marlies' best defenceman, producing seven goals and 37 assists in 52 games. Giving him a late-season chance will help Toronto parse together a contingency plan for its blueline before the playoffs.
“Looks like our defence is starting to get healthy and that’s an important piece for us,” said Babcock. “But at the same time, [we’re] figuring out if that doesn’t happen, what do we do? [We’re] seeing lots of players right now, so we can make the right decisions at the right time.”
With the time left before Toronto’s second season begins, Babcock will have his hands full steering the Leafs towards smoother waters. In the past three games, Toronto is a so-so 1-1-1, scoring only five goals combined and looking vulnerable at times. On the flip side, the Leafs have tightened up defensively, giving up 28 or fewer shots on net in each outing and limiting their turnovers.
Expanding on Tavares’ point about feeling good again, Babcock said the real remedy for Toronto will come in recapturing confidence.
“The challenge for us is to get playing the best we can and feeling real good about ourselves, having swagger going in [to playoffs],” he said. “We like our last three games; we just think our game has to improve.”
To do that, Toronto can’t look past the next few teams on the schedule. All three of their opponents this week – Florida on Monday, Philadelphia on Wednesday and Ottawa on Saturday – rank among the six worst defences in the league, presenting perfect conditions for Toronto to reignite its offence.
“We’re playing well, and our team is stacked through the lineup, so teams have a hard time matching up,” said William Nylander. “We’ve been able to create a lot of scoring chances. [Gaining confidence] is what we’re doing here in the last [few] games, get everything dialled in and prepared for Boston. That’s where our mind is at right now.”
That’s not to say the Leafs are already planning for the Bruins, despite the almost-certainty they have about what’s next. It’s more that if the Leafs intend to advance past Boston into the second round, there’s a lot of work to do and not much time to do it.
“For ourselves, I think a lot of the focus we put on our own game and trying to continue to build and get better,” said Tavares. “We want to get some consistent results, but there are a lot of good things that have gone on over the last few games and we’ll stick with those. I like where our game is headed.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup vs. Florida