TORONTO – Nights like Saturday allow a young man to dream big.
The Leafs are an astounding 13-2 over their past 15 outings, and their most recent W arrived without their No. 1 superstar centre.
Kadri believes this group, the one that just tied an Air Canada Centre record with its ninth consecutive home win, has done enough to force GM Lou Lamoriello to hold his cards and avoid disrupting the core before 3 p.m. ET Monday.
“We’re a tightknit group with some great chemistry, so I think we legitimately have a chance,” Kadri said.
Not just a make-some-noise-in-the-playoffs chance. A Stanley Cup chance, he clarifies.
“Oh, yeah. I’m talking a win. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to win. We don’t want to get bounced in the first or second round. We’re here to make a push,” Kadri said.
“We got a lot of great teams to go through, but we keep playing like we are, and good things are going to come out of that.”
Mitchell Marner, who had a hand in all four goals for the home side, calls the Toronto dressing room a brotherhood, yet he’s unsure if the group will still be intact Monday night.
It should be. When you trap lightning in a bottle, you needn’t unscrew the cap.
“I’m anxious for the guys, too. No one needs all this stuff,” coach Mike Babcock said. “They want it to be over with. A lot of the speculation is total hogwash, but it doesn’t matter. Their families are reading it, their wives are reading it, and so they end up hearing about it and here they go. We’ll just get it over with and get playing.”
Saturday marked the last regular-season meeting between the Maple Leafs and Bruins, but it certainly didn’t feel like the final time these two Eastern Conference powers will clash.
“There is a lot with this game, where we are in the standings, how close we are, and how we’ve played against them,” Bruins leading scorer Brad Marchand said. “We could potentially meet down the road.”
With the win, the Leafs nudged a point ahead of their rivals, but the standings are a mirage. The Bruins hold five games in hand.
Odds say these Original Six foes will draw each other in the Atlantic’s 2-3 opening-round matchup come April. Failing that, there’s a good chance they face off in Round 2.
If so, hockey is in for a treat.
“They’re going to want to show us the real Leafs team because of what happened last time in Boston,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy accurately predicted coming in.
At home, despite skating sans Marchand, the B’s suffocated the Leafs into submission on Feb. 3. So, according to shutdown-pair defenceman Morgan Rielly, Toronto studied more video than usual cramming for this one.
“We know how they want to play,” Marner said. “It’s going to be a big test.”
One that had to be taken without Toronto’s best student.
Matthews suffered a second-degree shoulder separation when he was sandwiched with a double body check Thursday and will be sidelined for two to four weeks, according to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos.
In response, Babcock dressed extra Josh Leivo for the first time since 2017; paired Marner with William Nylander, who grabbed Matthews’ role as top-line centre; and reunited his top shutdown line of Leo Komarov–Nazem Kadri–Patrick Marleau to limit hockey’s most effective trio — Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
“It’s way easier to be a winger,” Babcock said of Nylander’s opportunity. “If he can learn to compete on a high level, he can be a centre in the league, for sure. He’s dynamic in the middle of the ice, there’s a little more space for him, and he likes to have the puck.”
No one has been more opportunistic this season than Bergeron and the men who’ve earned the right to fly on his wings.
“They move it quick, they move it without telegraphing it, and they can finish,” Leafs defender Ron Hainsey said. “It’s a tough combo to deal with, no question.”
Marchand popped out alone in the high slot, took a pass from Pastrnak, and drew first blood in Period 1 with a wrister that pinged off Rielly’s outstretched stick.
The Maple Leafs’ brand-new first line answered on the very next shift, when Nylander zipped a tape-to-tape pass to Marner cross-ice through traffic. For once, the winger didn’t pause to look for a passing lane and immediately fired the puck clean past Tuukka Rask’s short side, triggering new combinations of hugs.
“[Nylander] is that skilled, that smart. He can play any position at the drop of a hat,” Kadri said. “He took responsibility tonight.”
Kadri buried a rebound mere seconds into the Leafs’ first power play of the game, and Toronto seized a 2-1 lead.
The Bruins’ Big 3 connected again, however, for only the 73rd time this season. Pastrnak delivered a wicked blind, backhand pass from behind the net, and Marchand roofed it something disgusting in tight on goalie Frederik Andersen. (Trophy hunter Bergeron quietly picked up secondary assists on both.)
“I got lucky,” Marchand shrugged. “I was trying to go low block and ended up going high glove.”
Jake DeBrusk tipped a Ryan Spooner pass while streaking to the net, restoring the Bruins’ lead early in the second period, but Kadri fired his second power-play marker late in the second, thanks to a tripping penalty drawn by an inspired Leivo.
Roughly 20 minutes of 3-3 tension snapped in joy when Hainsey blasted a point slapper to glory off another sweet Nylander feed with a scant 83 seconds to play. An upheld goaltender interference challenge gave the home city an excuse to erupt all over again.
“What happened was, they were a lot better than us,” Cassidy said.
Marchand didn’t disagree: “They play very tight all over the ice. It’s never an easy night in here. They’re obviously one of the best teams.”
As if the win itself, the Leafs’ record-tying ninth straight at Air Canada Centre, didn’t inspire hope that Toronto could finish ahead of Boston, then the sight of Bergeron leaving the rink in a walking boot on his right foot should have.
Babcock was impressed enough with his own players that he strayed from his one-game-at-a-time rhetoric. The coach said the Leafs can now play with anybody, that a post-season showdown with Boston would make for a great series.
“Home ice is important down the stretch, especially in the playoffs,” said Kadri.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world, the greatest city in the world to play hockey. We want to have that as an advantage.”