Leafs’ progress, perspective key ahead of meeting with behemoth Lightning

NHL insider Jeff Marek joins Jeff Blair to dissect where the Maple Leafs are in the Eastern Conference standings, wondering what's worse being 16 points back of Tampa, or the log jam of teams, including the Habs, that are right behind them.

TAMPA, Fla. — The Toronto Maple Leafs have kept a watchful eye on the Tampa Bay Lightning even as they’ve disappeared from view atop the Atlantic Division standings.

“It’s not very hard,” quipped Morgan Rielly. “They just kind of win.”

The Lightning have won so ruthlessly and so often that you will hear no talk of Thursday’s game at Amalie Arena carrying any added significance. That was how we billed it back in the halcyon days when six points separated these teams heading into their Dec. 13 meeting here.

Fast forward a month and the gap has widened to 16.

But you have to look beyond the standings for a reminder about how little will actually be learned or decided on a January night in Tampa. Remember how drastically the view can change inside a month, and that there’s still 83 days before the puck is dropped on the playoffs.

There seems to be great concern about the state of the Leafs in the here and now — at least according to the very unscientific sampling of anxious fans on my flight down to Florida.

Only the tiniest part of that concern is actually justified.

Sure, they laid an egg in a 6-3 loss to Colorado earlier this week and have been stuck in neutral since returning from the Christmas break. They are 3-5-0 in that stretch — a stretch where they were forced to start third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson five times and saw shooters like Auston Matthews run dry.

You could have lost a lot of money the last couple years betting that any Matthews goal slump would continue.

The last segment of schedule saw Toronto come out on the wrong end of a couple games where it played extremely well, including that Dec. 13 visit here where it piled 49 shots on the acrobatic Andrei Vasilevskiy and still lost 4-1.

“We skated well, we didn’t give them much time and space. We tracked well,” Matthews said of what was working in that game. “We were picking off pucks and going the other way. When we’re playing with our speed and our skill and doing things right, playing smart, taking care of the puck, we’re a tough team to play against.”

If that game is repeated on Thursday, the odds suggest the Leafs will find a more favourable outcome.

Except even if that happens it won’t change how we view the larger picture on the 2018-19 season. Tampa is a behemoth. A winning machine with no obvious lineup weaknesses, tearing through the league on a 22-3-2 run. The other day Mike Babcock casually referred to them as “the team that’s running away with hockey.”

Hockey is not a game of perfect and the Lightning are nearly perfect.

Here we are on Jan. 17 and they not only have the division locked up, but basically the Presidents’ Trophy as well. Deep down they already know that Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 of any playoff series will almost certainly be played at home this spring.

That could yet prove to be a challenge in itself, finding a way to stay sharp and motivated while chasing nothing more than history. Even the most disciplined and exceptional humans occasionally fall victim to human nature.

What the Lightning and Leafs can both do as well as anyone in the NHL is present multiple different ways to beat you. It’s not about targeting one player to shadow or trying to shut down one line when you come up against them.

They are each like hockey’s version of the ‘Whack A Mole’ game.

“There’s no one guy on that team that’s going to kill you. There’s a lot of threats,” said Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner. “You’ve just got to be ready for everything.”

“They’re spread out, they’ve just got good players on every line,” added Babcock. “Those are the [teams] that tend to play a long time in the spring, too.”

By the time the snow melts, we will be looking at different Leafs and Lightning teams than we see today. Personnel changes are possible before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, especially on Toronto’s blue line, and there’s bound to be some combination of injuries, call-ups and lineup shuffling, too.

That’s why there’s danger in putting too much stock in the outcome of any one game played before the all-star break in any given season. This one is no different — even if it features a couple of the NHL’s best.

Players and coaches understand that instinctively.

Rielly was asked recently if the Leafs even harbour dreams of trying to reel in Tampa over the second half of the season and said: “That’s what you guys do. I don’t know what the math is.”

“I know we play ‘em three more times so those will be important,” he added. “If we want to do that we’ve got to get hot. So just a matter of timing, I guess.”

The right time will come in April or May.

Everything between then and now is all about working towards being the best of yourself when the bright lights come on.

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