Maple Leafs trying to embrace golden opportunity of post-season run

Toronto trails the Bruins by just a single point for third in the Atlantic thanks to their 4-2 win.

TORONTO – When Brian Boyle looks around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room he doesn’t see what everyone else does.

With this playoff push growing more tense and exciting by the day, it is widely being painted as on-the-job training for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and friends.

But from the philosophical locker stall in the corner, where a quiet intensity burns like an ember from Boyle, this is about much more than that. All he sees are the 11 games left on the schedule following Monday’s 4-2 victory over Boston and the chance to go on a playoff run now.

“You’re not automatically going to be a better team from one year until the next,” said Boyle, with the wisdom of a veteran among rookies. “I learned that. We had a great year my first year in Tampa, we kind of struggled the next year and we picked it up (in the playoffs), and then this past year you look what happens and a bunch of guys get moved.

“It wasn’t where we thought we’d be.”

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This wasn’t where many figured the Leafs would be, either, back when Matthews scored four goals on opening night in a game his team still managed to lose. The expectations were non-existent in November, grew steadily through December, January and February and dipped again as recently as last week following a 7-2 loss in Florida.

Yet here we had the young Leafs navigating playoff-like conditions in back-to-back games while grabbing three out of a possible four points from Boston and Chicago.

They are now just one point back of the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division.

This group is in possession of a golden opportunity, plain and simple, with no qualifier necessary.

“It’s only important because we put ourselves in a situation for it to be important,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “We earned that right and now we’ve got to keep digging in.”

The ice surface has already shrunk while the intensity shot up. You had Leo Komarov and Brad Marchand coming together like magnets whenever they were on the ice together Monday, and maintaining a steady conversation across the boards whenever they weren’t.

“He loves to talk and I love to talk,” said Komarov. “So we were made for each other.”

With Babcock steadily rolling four lines and frequently juggling his defensive pairings, the Leafs did all they could to snuff out the dangerous opportunities against. David Backes broke through early after Marchand shook off Jake Gardiner and Komarov, but they continued to hold down the fort.

That was partly due to Freddie Andersen’s sharp performance – a left toe save on a Riley Nash wraparound attempt stood out – but also the commitment to positioning without the puck.

“The game’s getting tighter and we’re trying to avoid the mistakes,” said Komarov, while accentuating that they’re making acceptable mistakes now.

“Instead of giving a good easy pass we maybe throw in an icing,” he explained. “So that’s our mistakes, pretty much, so it’s not a turnover it’s just maybe an icing or a bad pass. But I see it better that way than to turn it over and it’s going to be in our net.”

That style of play calls for being opportunistic offensively.

A first-period goal from Morgan Rielly came off a magnificent sequence and backhand pass from Marner while the teams played 4-on-4. The extra ice certainly helped.

“When I saw he had control of the puck I mean I never had any doubt that he was going to get it there,” said Rielly. “We made eye contact and after that you don’t have to worry about it.”

The winner came off the stick of Tyler Bozak with less than two minutes remaining in regulation after Dominic Moore was penalized for interference. Nylander and Nazem Kadri added empty-net goals.

This sort of game would have been difficult to forecast when the Leafs showed up to training camp, but that matters little now. As Boyle wants everyone to know, there’s no guarantee the learning curve will shoot continuously upwards from here – even if it has already come so far so fast.

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“You know injuries happen, things happen, and that’s why you take these opportunities and you really try to embrace it,” he said. “It’s not to put too much pressure on yourself, but just – it’s a lot of fun. And you don’t know when you’re going to be back. And even if it is in 12 months, that’s a long time to wait and there’s a lot of games to be played in between that.

“That grind that we go through, it’s a grind.”

There is suddenly a light coming into view at the end of the tunnel.

The Leafs likely need to earn 11 or 12 more points to qualify for the playoffs. Something along the lines of 6-5-0 should get the job done with a schedule that makes the task look eminently possible.

At Columbus. Home to New Jersey. At Buffalo. Home to Florida. At Nashville. At Detroit. At Buffalo. Home to Washington. Home to Tampa. Home to Pittsburgh. Home to Columbus.

“We should really be excited about this,” said Boyle. “When there’s more on the line (the games) are more fun to play in. More satisfying when you win and they crush you when you lose. Oh, it’s tough. I remember packing up and taking my gear off for the last time pretty much every year – where I was and who we played and it’s a tough feeling.

“But it’s great to get another chance. You don’t know how many you get.”