(Toronto) The contrast couldn’t be starker.
On the one hand, a team inflated to block, in full preparation for the playoffs which promise to be trying. On the other, a club deprived of half of its regular players, which shells the last matches of the calendar before finally being freed from its misery.
At morning practice on Saturday, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens seemed to live on two different planets. With the return to health of Ryan O’Reilly, the Leafs will pit the Habs against what looks like the NHL’s most dangerous offensive top 6. O’Reilly will be flanked by John Tavares and William Nylander on the home side’s second (!) line. Auston Matthews will pivot the main unit, completed by Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner.
In the opposing camp, we used video coach Daniel Harvey as a goalkeeper and used forward Sean Farrell in defense. Obviously neither of them will play this role in the evening, but a solution had to be found while waiting for the arrival in Toronto of Corey Schueneman and Cayden Primeau, who were urgently recalled after their match with the Laval Rocket on Friday. Harvey will return to his usual livelihood and Farrell will watch the encounter from the press gallery for the second time in a row.
“We’re not where we want to be [in the standings], but we’re trying to have fun and stay competitive,” Jake Evans said after practice. We don’t want to be miserable until the end of the season. »
In the Toronto locker room, you don’t have to “try”. The team is assured of home ice advantage in the first round and already knows their opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The last matches on the calendar will serve to start a machine which we know will have to be run in every minute.
To paraphrase Marc Messier in Les Boys: morale is that of a Cadillac. We are dedicated to fine-tuning the famous “details” that can make the difference between a long way in the playoffs and yet another early elimination.
The Leafs’ offensive power is self-explanatory. What has sunk this team in the past, however, is their lack of depth and defensive limitations.
The acquisitions of center Ryan O’Reilly, a former Frank-Selke Trophy winner, as well as defensemen Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn, solidify this aspect of the game.
Integrating new defense personnel takes some time, acknowledged Mark Giordano. “You have to know your partners and their tendencies well,” explained the veteran. We are all able to play together, to communicate, [but] we have to use the last games of the season to strengthen our chemistry. »
The face of defense has changed quite a bit in Toronto since the first-round disappointment against the Lightning last year. Jake Muzzin has missed most of the season due to injury and won’t be back until next year. Ilya Lyubushkin was only passing through. Timothy Liljegren has taken the lead. McCabe, an “undervalued” player according to Giordano, entered the scene, joined by Schenn and Erik Gustafsson, a strictly attacking defender.
Proof that we are in break-in mode, Morgan Rielly and T. J. Brodie will skip their turn against the Canadian.
“We have a group that can play hard, which is important against the Lightning, who have so many good, big players,” Giordano said. We have to be at their level physically. »
In the playoffs, “our defensive game will have to be our foundation,” said Ryan O’Reilly, who said he was “impressed” by what he saw from the stands during his weeks-long recovery from a spinal injury. a finger.
“We know how dangerous our attack is. If we can make both work, we’ll have a chance. »
Head coach Sheldon Keefe believes the same. Defensive play has been a central part of recent work, and his team is reaping the rewards, he says.
He particularly underlined the collective effort deployed Thursday evening in Boston. Although the Maple Leafs were the better team during the game, it was the Bruins who emerged victorious in the duel, which ended 2-1 in overtime.
“Going on the road and giving so little [to the opponent] is good for us,” Keefe continued. We deserved to win. The results have not been on our side, but the process is there. We managed to secure the advantage of the ice [for the playoffs], it’s a great accomplishment. We are where we want to be. We can now focus on what will follow. »
Injured, Calle Jarnkrok will have to skip the match against the Canadian. Goalkeeper Matt Murray, who was nursing a head injury, could appear as an auxiliary, which will not be confirmed until the warm-up period. The Habs will send the same roster that defeated the Washington Capitals 6-2 on Thursday. Samuel Montembeault will be the starting goaltender.