Johnston on Leafs: Settling into playoff mentality

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Just in case there was any doubt, Randy Carlyle wasted little time before making it clear his Toronto Maple Leafs have already adopted a playoff mindset.

“At this time of the year, I don’t really tell anybody what I’m doing,” Carlyle told a large gathering of reporters Friday afternoon. “Only the players.”

The topic of conversation in this case was Tyler Bozak, the team’s top centre who sat out practice one day after missing his first game of the season for “maintenance.”

It remains to be seen whether he’ll be available for Saturday’s regular-season finale against the Montreal Canadiens, let alone the playoff opener early next week.

Carlyle wasn’t able to shed much light on Bozak’s status — “Actually, I haven’t seen him,” he said — and that’s exactly the way the situation is likely to remain. Information tends to be scarce around NHL teams in the spring.

The exact cause of the injury isn’t even known, although a good candidate seems to be a series of three hard bodychecks Bozak took from Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Radko Gudas in his second-last shift of Wednesday’s game.

The following night, Nazem Kadri was called on to fill his spot with a newly created top unit that included Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The results were quick to come. They accounted for a pair of goals in a victory over the Florida Panthers.

Kadri believes he’s ready to assume a more prominent role in the lineup if the team continues to need it.

“I obviously accept any challenge that I’m given,” he said. “If that’s the case, then so be it. Hopefully we’re going to be healthy for the playoffs and be able to have that depth to go deep.”

If Bozak’s absence continues, it would also likely see Mikhail Grabovski given more ice time. He’s had a tough season offensively, but centred the second line on Thursday with Nikolai Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk.

Grabovski is one of the longest-tenured Leafs and would also embrace added responsibility.

“I’m very happy to do whatever they tell me to do right now,” he said. “Whatever it takes. I’ll play five minutes, six minutes, 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter.

“Whatever they need.”

The Leafs most likely playoff opponent is still Montreal, although it might not ultimately be determined until Boston and Ottawa play a makeup game on Sunday night.

If Toronto beats Montreal in regulation on Saturday and Boston earns at least one point from its remaining two games, then a Leafs-Habs series would become reality for the first time in 34 years.

The Toronto players haven’t done much to hide their desire to see it happen and you can bet they’ll come out hard with a chance to send a message to the Canadiens on Saturday night.

There was even some potential bulletin board material courtesy of an honest scouting report from Lupul. He didn’t hesitate when asked why Toronto has taken three out of four meetings with Montreal this season.

“We’re physically a lot bigger and stronger,” said Lupul. “They have a lot of speed and skill and (Carey) Price is a difference-maker. I know he’s a little bit off his game right now, but I would expect him to find it. He’s a competitive guy.

“But our thing is getting pucks in deep on them, finish checks — especially on lots of the smaller, skilled players — over a long series that type of thing pays off.”

In fact, that is basically the type of game plan the Leafs will attempt to use against any opponent. Depending on how things play out, they could also face the Bruins or Capitals in the first round.

“No matter who we play, we want to pound them and wear teams out,” said Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur. “Especially in these (playoff) series, it’s going to be really important.”

After a relaxed road trip in Florida, the mood shifted slightly as the team returned home. Most noticeably, Friday’s practice had a more playoff-type feel with large media scrums and plenty of chatter about what was to come.

Carlyle has spoken often this season about eliminating the “white noise” — his term for media stories and speculation — and doesn’t think his team will have to alter its approach once the playoffs begin.

“You try to create an environment, a template, a culture – whatever word you want to use to describe it – so that when everything changes around you it doesn’t change inside that room,” said Carlyle.

Asked directly if he expected Bozak to be available to play on Saturday night, the Leafs coach flashed a smile before responding.

“You’re asking all of the questions I haven’t got the answer to,” he said.

It must be that time of year again.

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