Leafs adopting playoff mentality, accepting reality of tough road ahead

Morgan Rielly scored on his birthday, and John Tavares buried his 38th of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs blanked the Edmonton Oilers 3-0.

EDMONTON — This was as complete a road victory as the Toronto Maple Leafs have managed all season, the scrambly last two minutes inside Rogers Place included.

Their stars shone and Connor McDavid was largely kept in check and the two points moved them up to fourth overall in the NHL standings. And yet… those points actually increased Toronto’s odds of a first-round matchup with the No. 2-ranked Boston Bruins, who are riding a scorching 15-0-4 run and on pace for another 112-point season.

“Yeah, it’s odd,” said John Tavares. “It’s odd.”

Strange times, indeed.

The Leafs, Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have every reason to rue a divisional playoff format that will see at least two of them eliminated by the end of the second round.

It has made even a 2-0-1 swing through Western Canada feel ho-hum with a month to go in the season because the only thing the Leafs are playing for is home-ice advantage. And there isn’t even consensus inside the dressing room on how important that really is, with Auston Matthews saying: “I think that’s maybe in the back of our minds, but I don’t think it’s too much of a main focus for us.”

All they have, really, is the process.

The concept Kyle Dubas built his season-opening address around when he spoke to players on the opening night of training camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This victory in Edmonton ticked all of the boxes for a team unable to find much motivation from the Atlantic Division standings. It saw Matthews control 69 per cent of the adjusted shot attempts in a head-to-head matchup with McDavid and featured a goal and two assists for Tavares, plus a strong showing from Nazem Kadri in his return from a concussion. Frederik Andersen was strong in goal. They killed all three penalties.

“I thought we controlled the puck, were heavy on the cycle, did lots of really good things,” said coach Mike Babcock.

“I think we played essentially a pretty perfect road game,” added Kadri, who hadn’t played since Feb. 19. “Took away their speed, which is how they’re most effective. It was pretty responsible with the puck and took advantage of our chances.”

The Leafs owned 60.2 per cent of even-strength shot attempts overall — their fourth-strongest showing in 68 games this season and the best in a game played away from Scotiabank Arena.

(Although, to be fair, this was basically another home-away-from-home game, with boisterous chants of “Freddie! Freddie!” for Andersen. Let the record show: The Leafs brand is alive and well in Western Canada).

Understandably, the Toronto players are viewing everything through the prism of where it leaves them for the upcoming playoffs.

That is where this season will ultimately be measured. Tavares, who has already matched a career-high with his 38th goal, is looking forward to his fourth spring of playoff hockey and notes that you’re never going to feel better than you do right now, in these final days of the stretch run and through the opening round.

“It’s a long grind to get to where you want to get to,” he said.

The grind will begin with Boston. They’re making more peace with that reality with each passing day.

“You’re going to have to beat some of the best teams in the league and play against some of the best players in the world and there’s going to be tough matchups,” said Tavares. “It’s odd, but it is what it is.”

Andersen was on the verge of a shutout before Edmonton pulled its goalie and scored twice with the 6-and-5 advantage. Zack Kassian nearly tied it, too, providing a brief shot of mayem that sent Babcock straight to the video room.

“Obviously, I’d like to have the last two minutes back,” he said.

Toronto was still full value, though.

“They’re just …,” said McDavid. “They’re a good hockey team, they are solid all over, they never make mistakes, obviously skilled, they just come at you in waves.

“So they’re a good team.”

The Leafs are starting to develop the swagger of one, too.

Even with the hiccup in Vancouver — where they blew a third-period lead for the first time all season and lost 3-2 in overtime — they’re starting to develop some urgency. Boston never loses.

They know what’s coming.

“I think if you look at the way our goalie’s playing, you look at the way [Tavares is] playing, you know, I think you can really tell that there’s guys that are at that point where it’s playoffs and we’re trying to amp it up,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “I think that’s good. I think that’s what we need.

“So, yeah, I mean we’re almost there.”

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