TORONTO – If the Maple Leafs play their cards right, and get a little help from the Boston Bruins, they can be right back in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs by Saturday night.
As it stands going into Toronto’s game against Philadelphia on Friday, the Leafs are four points back of the Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand.
If Toronto can sweep its weekend back-to-back against the Flyers and Ottawa Senators, and Boston loses in regulation on Saturday to Columbus, the Leafs will tie Boston in points and move into second by virtue of having more regulation and overtime wins. That would leave Toronto with a chance to control its own fate in the standings leading up to playoffs.
“It’s important for us,” Nazem Kadri said on Friday of chasing down the Bruins. “We’ve realized that can make a difference, so we want to push here and hopefully collect as much as we can. It’s important for us to try and play catch up and put ourselves in the best position possible.”
The Bruins passed Toronto in the standings on the strength of their February and early March, complete with a run of 19 consecutive games with at least a point (15-0-4). Boston has since cooled in three consecutive losses, a golden opportunity for the Leafs to exploit if they can start winning again.
“Ball is in our court, let’s do what we can,” said Mike Babcock of climbing past Boston. “But I think the biggest thing other than just the standings is get better every day. Be playing right, taking care of the puck, heavy on offence, solid on defence – do all the little details. In the end, you’ll [be] happy in the spring.”
One theory to explain Toronto’s struggles has been that knowing their likely playoff opponent for several weeks has diminished the drive to keep pushing for more. But with home ice still within reach, the Leafs have plenty to play for.
“You want to get your game going. You want to be running smooth going into playoffs,” said Jake Muzzin. “[Home ice] would be huge. Momentum, energy; it’s always nice to be home and have the crowd the first two games. We’ll deal with what we get, but we’re definitely pushing for home ice.”
The hunt starts in a second meeting of the season against Philadelphia, a group still desperate to sneak into the playoff picture. Chicago was in the same boat, and the way they pounced on Toronto’s careless play Wednesday is a lesson for the Leafs in what not to do Friday night.
Frederik Andersen will step in to face the Flyers after being pulled in each of Toronto’s last two losses, while Zach Hyman is a game-time decision with the flu. Kasperi Kapanen (concussion) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) remain out, but did skate on their own Friday. Jake Gardiner also remains out with a back injury.
Babcock has tapped Justin Holl to step onto the Leafs’ third defence pairing Friday night for his fifth game of the season. The regular healthy scratch has rarely been called upon over fellow rookie Igor Ozhiganov, so this is a chance to make an impression.
“It’s another opportunity. We want someone to grab it,” Babcock said. “We think Dermott is probably ahead of Gardiner coming back, and he’s taking one of those spots [on the third pairing]. So someone else has to grab hold of [the other] and it should be obvious to everyone, not just me.”
That same seize-the-moment attitude applies to the Leafs’ mission of winning home ice. Only 12 games separate Toronto from the postseason and the team is smart enough to know Boston won’t stay down for long.
“The Bruins lost last night [4-3 to Winnipeg]. We get a win tonight, makes it more realistic [we pass them],” said Ron Hainsey. “It’s still realistic being four points back [with equal games played] but the harder we can make it for them, the better. We have to start with taking care of business here.”
Maple Leafs projected lineup vs. Philadelphia:
Game-time decision: Hyman