TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs figure some good fortune has finally started going their way. It appears that they’ll get a little bit more on Saturday night with the Winnipeg Jets expected to scratch star forward Evander Kane.
The move wasn’t confirmed by coach Paul Maurice after the morning skate, but Kane was kept on the ice for extra work at Air Canada Centre – a tell-tale sign that he’ll likely be left out of the lineup.
While Kane is having an off-year with 17 goals and 39 points, it’s unclear why that decision was made. Winnipeg was eliminated from playoff contention earlier this week but Maurice indicated that the organization believes it shouldn’t throw in the towel down the stretch.
“I think whenever possible you put your best lineup in there,” said Maurice. “They deserve it: The Toronto Maple Leafs deserve it, and so do the other teams in that fight.”
The Leafs arrived to the rink on Saturday morning feeling a little bit better about their playoff chances. They are chasing Columbus for the final wild card spot and most of the players had watched the Blue Jackets allow a goal with 3.7 seconds remaining to lose 4-3 to Chicago on Friday night.
“I was watching it – it was a pretty spectacular finish,” said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri. “I did a fist pump one or two times.”
That left Toronto one point back with one extra game played. The margin for error remains minimal, but the team has kept itself in the race with consecutive victories over Calgary and Boston this week.
Jonathan Bernier suffered a knee injury during Thursday’s victory over the Bruins, leaving James Reimer as the man carrying the team’s playoff hopes in net. It has been more than two months since he won a start – he’s picked up two victories in relief since – and Reimer was pulled during a 5-4 overtime loss in Winnipeg on Jan. 25.
It was unclear whether the Leafs would have Joffrey Lupul in the lineup. He didn’t play against Boston because of an undisclosed lower-body injury and was considered a game-time decision, according to coach Randy Carlyle.
The Leafs go on the road for their final three games of the regular season and were looking to register a 25th win at home for the first time since 2005-06. That is one area where the team feels it has made some strides.
“Your home rink has to be one place that's difficult for opposition to come in and steal points,” said Carlyle. “Our mandate is to make it as difficult as possible and we think that we owe our fans more of an opportunity to watch a team play to a high level, and that's really what we're trying to do.
“We can make all the statements we want. We have to live it. The actions speak louder than words.”
Ondrej Pavelec will start in goal for Winnipeg. He’s had a tough year and enters the game with a .901 save percentage – by far the lowest among NHL goalies that have made at least 40 appearances. The team’s backup is currently Michael Hutchinson, a 24-year-old who Maurice says will get his first NHL start at some point during the next week.
The Jets are in position to start looking big picture after missing out on the post-season for a third straight year since moving to Winnipeg. Not only have the players taken that hard, according to Maurice, but they know that they can’t simulate a playoff-type feeling over the final five games of the season.
“We can’t fake that,” he said. “That only comes from getting there. That kind of intensity and pressure, we've got to find a way to manufacture in the regular season. That'll be the key for us next year: get wired up to that level and away we go. ...
“You can't understand how intense the playoffs are until you get into one of those games. You can watch it on TV and talk about it, but it'd be nice to get those young players in one.”