TAMPA, Fla. — In years past, the joke basically would have told itself.
After finding themselves with a day off in April, some members of the Toronto Maple Leafs took advantage of a warm Sunday afternoon in Florida to play some golf.
Golf. Spring. The Leafs.
How many times in the last nine years have you heard a punchline attached to that collection of words? The notion of it was even once famously mocked by former Buffalo Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters
No one is laughing now.
Instead, the golf games were well-earned. The Leafs played 45 games in 91 days before officially locking up a playoff spot with a 4-1 victory in Ottawa Saturday night.
It was a punishing stretch of hockey — a pain shared by every team in the NHL after the lockout — and it featured far more ups than downs. Consider that the only two teams with more regulation and overtime wins right now are Pittsburgh and Chicago, the respective leaders of each conference.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle has made a point of trying to restore some pride to the organization. It’s fair to assume he wouldn’t much like the “Golf Leafs Golf” kind of stuff mentioned above. And he certainly won’t be happy to just see his team simply cruise into the post-season.
That is what makes this mini-break in Florida particularly interesting.
Clearly, it offers a good opportunity for the players to take a breather (the team scheduled an off-ice workout Monday) but Carlyle won’t want them to take the foot right off the gas pedal.
The games against the Lightning on Wednesday and Panthers on Thursday are both extremely winnable and Saturday’s home date with the Montreal Canadiens could potentially be for home-ice advantage in the first round.
There is still plenty to play for in the dwindling days of this shortened season.
However, as the Habs have painfully found out, it doesn’t take much to lose an edge. They have gone 1-4-0 since clinching a playoff spot and were outscored 25-12 in the process.
Comfort was quickly replaced by mini-crisis. Rather than golfing, they found themselves going through a rare Sunday practice that was clearly aimed at getting their attention.
“Sometimes you need to refresh your memory,” defenceman P.K. Subban told reporters afterwards.
“Teams that come in hungry and on a roll are teams that go far in the playoffs,” added forward Travis Moen. “We’ve got three games here to turn it around and get feeling good about our game again.”
At this point, the Leafs are most likely to face Montreal in a (4 vs. 5) matchup in the Eastern Conference. There is also a chance they’ll meet Boston or Washington.
Here’s a look at how they stack up against those teams:
Head-to-head: Leafs are 3-1-0 with one meeting left.
Remaining opponents: at New Jersey (Tuesday); at Winnipeg (Thursday); at Toronto (Saturday).
Odds of facing Toronto: 59.1 per cent.
Scouting report: Michel Therrien has pulled his goalie in three of the last five games and No. 1 man Carey Price isn’t playing up to his usual standard. He sports a .905 save percentage that would match the lowest of his career. However, the Habs still have a chance to win the Northeast Division with a strong finish.
Head-to-head: Bruins won series 3-1-0.
Remaining opponents: at Philadelphia (Tuesday); vs. Tampa Bay (Thursday); at Washington (Saturday); vs. Ottawa (Sunday).
Odds of facing Toronto: 25.2 per cent.
Scouting report: The Bruins haven’t quite looked the Bruins for most of this season and face six games in nine days to end the year because of the recent terrorist attacks in the city. It won’t be an easy task. However, given Boston’s dominance over Toronto in recent years, a first-round matchup with the Bruins is probably the worst-case scenario for the Leafs.
Head-to-head: Leafs won series 2-1-0.
Remaining opponents: vs. Winnipeg (Tuesday); vs. Ottawa (Thursday); vs. Boston (Saturday).
Odds of facing Toronto: 11.8 per cent.
Scouting report: Arguably the hottest team in the league over the last month, Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals look like a potentially dangerous opponent in their own right. Remember that this team pulled off a surprising first-round upset of the Bruins last season — with Braden Holtby in goal –and that squad didn’t have Ovechkin playing at this level. He is currently re-energized and leads the league with 30 goals.
The mere fact that the Leafs can start tracking the standings to see who they’ll face in the first round is a welcome change in itself. It’s been a long time coming.
Members of the coaching staff and management team were congratulated by colleagues when they attended Sunday night’s Lightning-Hurricanes game and former general manager Brian Burke sent along his best wishes as well.
“Congratulations to Dave Nonis, Randy Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf and the rest of the Leafs on reaching the playoffs!” Burke wrote on Twitter.
After nine years of being on the outside looking in, the pats on the back were appreciated.
The same can be said of Sunday’s round of golf — it might be a little while yet before anyone associated with the team will be free to play again.