TORONTO – These are the luxuries of the first place.
With a destiny to the playoffs X Pre-pinned to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and a comfortable nine-point buffer that separates them from the rest of the group, every day from now until Game 1 is a maintenance day.
We’re seeing sword sharpening, aligning experimentation, and body resting before battle.
With no regular-season dragons to kill, no real threat faced by the blades in the last six games left in the chain, it’s simply time to tie up loose ends, settle scores, and grease the machine.
Think about it: On Thursday night, coach Sheldon Keefe started his third-row goalie (and dressed his fourth as a backup), filled out a lineup card that didn’t include five or six of his ideal playoff skaters, tried out three new defensive pairings, stirred the lines, and still saw his group dominate the Vancouver Canucks in a 4-1 thrashing.
“The guys haven’t played in a couple of weeks, and it’s hard to get rid of the rust sometimes, but I thought everyone who came out tonight looked really good and helped us win,” said Auston Matthews, after scoring his number one goal. 36, the best in the NHL. and best winner of the 11th NHL game.
Using their last back-to-back of the season as a cargo-handling opportunity, the Leafs gave veterans Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Nick Foligno a night off. Regulars Zach Hyman (knee) and Zach Bogosian (shoulder) are recovering from injury. as does the new closing center Riley Nash (lower body).
Starter Jack Campbell had a mental break from not having to dress as a backup. Instead, Michael Hutchinson donned the mask and cap, and saw only slightly less work than starter David Rittich, who needed just 15 saves to secure his first win as a blade and a game puck collected by Mitch Marner.
“Oh, he’s an amazing guy,” Rittich said. “That’s a great thing of you, and all I can say is thank you.”
Acquisition of Patient Deadline Ben Hutton made his debut in Leafs. Prospect Timothy Liljegren made his NHL season debut. Rasmus Sandin, the city talker, was elevated to the top pair and a workload of 9:39 pm, the highest in his career.
“A, we think he earned it. YB, it’s part of the growth process for him. We want to be able to give a little more and see how he handles it, ”explained Keefe. “For Rasmus, I think it was natural for us to give him more responsibility and just put it there and get going. I think you did a good job today. It’s a really positive development not just for Rasmus but for our entire defense. “
In association with the staunch TJ Brodie, the 21-year-old responded to his first top-four assignment with one assist, three blocks, two hits and a rating of plus 2.
“I don’t even know where to start, to be honest,” Matthews said of the rookie. “I mean, it’s really good.”
The reconfigured blue line did not miss a beat, limiting the Canucks to a total of two shots in Period 1 and knocking them out with equal force. (JT Miller scored on the power play).
Just as Sandin will give the coaching staff something to think about for the playoffs, healthy internal competition is raging among depth forwards.
After a week of healthy scratches, Pierre Engvall burst into the lineup, scoring a beautiful goal and joining Jason Spezza and Adam Brooks in a line that generated seven scoring chances and gave up zero.
Joe Thornton, 41, extended his points streak to four games. As difficult as it has been for Brooks to get into the lineup, the smart center makes it difficult to send him off.
And Wayne Simmonds did his part by fighting Alex Edler, who may add that he was punched in the face and fined and suspended as punishment for sidelining Hyman with a knee-over-knee checkup last week.
Simmonds aggressively chose a revenge fight with Edler early on. Until Simmonds, the veteran defender had lasted 995 career games (including playoffs) without a fight commander, according to HockeyFights.com, and the reluctant fighter needed repairs after holding on to his life.
“That’s part of what Wayne brings to a team. I think little things like that are in the structure of our game and I think they are part of what makes a team a team, what unites a team. Credit to Simmer for stepping up in those situations, “said Keefe.
“His colleagues appreciate and recognize him. It set a good tone for the game. It was nothing that was really talked about beforehand or anything like that. It took me a bit off guard, but I think anyone who’s been in the game knew what was going on there. The credit is that Wayne has stepped up and, at the same time, that Edler participates in that. “
Simmonds may also be struggling for ice time.
When the Leafs regain full health, playoff time should be tight. Internal playoff testing is underway, and Keefe has had some one-on-one conversations with forwards in the mix, challenging them to step up and facilitate their decisions.
Keefe sees it as healthy competition. Depth is a blessing, not a problem.
“The only thing that players can control is their performance and their role to take on a role, and then be consistent and be accountable and show that they bring value to the group,” Keefe said.
“We have many different options when we are healthy. I think it’s just a matter of all those things falling into place. But yes, certainly, I think the players recognize it.
“The players are smart enough to figure out that kind of thing and do the math.”
Andersen unlikely to suit the Marlies
Goalie Frederik Andersen (knee) is back practicing regularly with the Maple Leafs, and he’s hoping to make a start or two before the postseason.
That said, Keefe sounded decidedly cold at the thought that Andersen might get an AHL conditioning stint with the Marlies as part of his preparation.
“We have not had those discussions. I don’t know where that really comes from. It just hasn’t made it to my desk, ”Keefe said.
“We’re just trying to get Fred healthy and comfortable enough to be ready for game action here.”