5 storylines as Leafs get set to host ‘desperate’ Stars team

It’s now reality for Maple Leafs’ prospect Andreas Johnsson, who will make his NHL debut Wednesday vs. the Dallas Stars, says he’s calm right now, but the nerves will set in as game-time gets closer.

TORONTO – A critical game for the Dallas Stars means almost nothing to Toronto Maple Leafs not named Andreas Johnsson, Ron Hainsey takes a decidedly blunt look on the “joys” of shot blocking, and two important defenders appear to be sidelined Wednesday.

Here are five storylines to watch Wednesday in Toronto.

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Babcock’s advice to Johnsson: ‘Dreams do come true’

Mike Babcock smiled secretively when we asked what his message might be to Johnsson ahead of the winger’s NHL debut Wednesday.

“Nothing I’m going to tell you guys, but we’ll have a few laughs with him today, to say the least,” the Maple Leafs coach said.

“Get out there and enjoy it. You spent your whole life dreaming of it. Dreams do come true if you work hard enough, if you have enough passion.”

Sitting in a corner stall the morning of the largest game of his life, Johnsson spoke about having to handle “the energy rush” and emotions of night. The 23-year-old called his parents with the good news Tuesday, and his whole family will be staying up late in Sweden to watch.

“It’s just the hockey game you’ve played forever. I’m not going to change any routines I have,” said Johnsson, sounding like a man trying to convince himself. “I’ll stay [with] what I’m used to and not think about how big it is.”

Babcock says there’s no sense being uptight.

“Get out there and play. Do what you do. You got here because you have something,” Babcock said. “Enjoy the day. Enjoy the national anthem. Enjoy skating around. You’re wearing a Leaf uniform.”

In 2018-19, Johnsson should fill the top-nine left-wing spot vacated by pending free agent James van Riemsdyk.

Babcock says “for sure” he envisions the versatile Johnsson as a full-time Leaf next season.

“But in saying that, our job is to find more players,” Babcock cautions.

“That’s the beauty about hockey: the truth today isn’t the truth tomorrow. If you can get someone better, get someone better. That’s just the way it is.”

All pressure on Dallas: ‘The temperature has gone way up’

There is a 100 per cent chance the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs, and a 98 per cent chance they finish exactly where they are — third in the Atlantic — according to SportsClubStats.com. Hence, the leeway to rest Auston Matthews and hold a late-season tryout for Johnsson.

Dallas, on the flip side, has just a 55.9 per cent shot of making the dance, and those odds plummeted by 14.6 per cent with Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to a banged-up Montreal squad.

The Stars have dropped four of their past five and haven’t scored more than twice in any of those outings. Dallas is clenching at the worst possible time.

The Stars need a game that is essentially irrelevant to the Leafs.

“This time of year, it’s really revealing, one way or the other. There’s lots left in [the season], by the way. We’re not dead yet,” Stars coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters Tuesday night.

“Now the temperature has gone way up, and we’ve shown some cracks …. You’re seeing some guys, quite frankly, not wear the pressure quite well, and we’ve got to help them through that.”

Under Hitchcock, the Stars are tighter defensively, but the offence has dried up and starting goalie Ben Bishop is injured. Dallas is clinging to the second wild-card spot, with Calgary, Anaheim and St. Louis all within a three-point striking distance.

“They’re gonna be a desperate team,” Babcock said. “They play hard. They don’t give up a lot.”

Including information.

Hitchcock said he is contemplating splitting up the top line of Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in order to spread his offensive power.

The coach joked with a reporter pre-game that it would cost money to get him to reveal the evening’s lineup.

Absent stay-at-home defencemen could open up offence

The Stars’ Marc Methot departed Tuesday’s loss in Montreal after blocking a shot with his left hand and required stitches.

Methot has been ruled out Wednesday, and there is no timeline for his return.

Dallas’s recalled Dillon Heatherington from Texas Wednesday morning, but it’s Julius Honka who will draw in versus the Leafs.

For the second consecutive game, Toronto will be forced to make do without Nikita Zaitsev. Jake Gardiner’s usual partner is still dealing with the flu and has not practised since Friday.

The Leafs were in danger of being without defenceman Travis Dermott as well, as the rookie got hit hard with a head cold Tuesday and slept “23 out of 24 hours.” Calle Rosen was temporarily recalled but returned to the Marlies as Dermot will skate through the sniffles.

“I was hoping I didn’t catch the flu from [Zaitsev],” Dermott says. “Happy I didn’t.”

‘Great joy’ of shot blocking is not quite a skill

Hainsey, killer of every Leafs penalty he doesn’t take himself, tops all Toronto players (and ranks 18th overall) with 135 blocked shots. But he is hesitant to call that aspect of his job a talent.

“Well, if you count standing in the way between you and the goalie as a skillset. I don’t know if that’s accurate,” Hainsey said, dryly.

“If the other team makes enough plays, there’s usually a defenceman standing in the way between the shooter and the goalie and sometimes it hits him. It’s one of those great joys on how the game has developed over the past 10 years or so. They tell me where to stand, then I stand there, and then if it hits me…”

This one goes to 11?

The only real significance in this game from a Toronto perspective is historic.

The century-old Maple Leafs busted a franchise record when they defeated Pittsburgh Saturday, running their home winning streak to a nice, round 10 games. They have a chance to crank the volume to 11 with a W tonight and build on a winter of ACC magic. The Raptors are a silly-good 28-5 at home.

“When all the teams are doing well, it makes for a lot of fun,” said van Riemsdyk. “You can feel the buzz throughout the city.”

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