TORONTO – The final dress rehearsal before the big show went as smoothly as one could hope.
Records got broken. Benchmarks were reached. No one broke a hand blocking a pointless point shot.
And so, history’s winningest regular-season edition of the 101-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs will pack their belief and one round of playoff lessons and board a jet south next week (destination TBD) feeling good about themselves and their opening-night playoff lineup, which was unveiled in Saturday’s 4-2 cruise over the Montreal Canadiens.
Memories of the Leafs’ 14-game losing streak against Montreal felt as distant as Carey Price’s dominance or Shea Weber’s health on a night when the Leafs polished off a perfect 4-0 record versus their nemesis in 2017-18.
“We’ve played pretty hard and gotten better and played quicker,” said Mike Babcock, head coach and constantly tinkering craftsman of his starting 18. “Part of it is we’ve got good depth and you add people to your lineup and you keep everybody on their toes a little bit that way.”
Having slapped a padlock on the Atlantic Division’s third seed since back when the Sedins were still on the fence, Toronto has used its time and space — hockey’s most coveted commodity — in the standings to hold extended tryouts on the fourth line and third defence pairing, to rent a much revered depth centre from their eldest rival, to stoke the irons of its fearsome power play, and, above all, to strut into the spring dance healthy, rested and ready to rock.
“We believe in one another,” says Morgan Rielly, one of10 different Maple Leafs who put a bow on a 40-point campaign.
“We’re more prepared. We’ve proven over the course of this season that we’re capable of beating anybody. We’ve beat the best teams in the league.”
Here is what Babcock’s bunch looked like on Saturday and how it should look Thursday night when the playoff curtain opens in Tampa or Boston, both of whom sent a scout to spy on this one:
“If we were starting today, this is how we’d be starting,” Babcock said.
Aside from its sturdy backbone and minute-munching top defence pairs, it’s a collection that has been so in flux that only Auston Matthews’ top line mirrors the Leafs’ opening night lineup of Oct. 4.
After spending shifts on all four units, Mitch Marner has ascended from the doghouse to Nazem Kadri’s second line and finishes as the club’s leading scorer (69 points). Babcock knew Connor Brown wouldn’t last long on the fourth line, where he began the fall, and true enough, Brown has grinded his way to Marner’s old spot alongside Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, two veterans likely heading into one last run in blue and white.
“We’ve got some free agents this year, so are we going to be as good next year?” Babcock wondered. “I don’t know the answer to that. The big thing about it is, we don’t have to worry about next year. We’re playing right now. Let’s dig in and see what we can get done.”
The finicky fourth line has been stripped apart and overhauled. Centre Eric Fehr (remember him?) was dealt to San Jose. Dominic Moore and Matt Martin have joined Josh Leivo on the black aces. And excitable March call-up Andreas Johnsson may be next man up if speed demon Kasperi Kapanen or trustworthy Leo Komarov get exposed.
On the back end, expect Babcock to ride offence generators Rielly and Jake Gardiner — the NHL’s only pair of 50-point D-men outside of Nashville’s all-world Roman Josi and P.K. Subban.
Ron Hainsey will be expected to kill every Leafs penalty. And Nikita Zaitsev, arguably the only member of Toronto’s vaunted 2016-17 rookie class to not take a step forward, will need to elevate his performance.
Roman Polak has bullied his way from a PTO to take the younger, faster Connor Carrick’s job, and Travis Dermott has ascended from AHL all-star to a foreseeable lineup fixture for the next eight years.
“Real quick,” Babcock describes the happy-go-lucky rookie. “He’s going to be a guy that forwards like to play with because he can get the puck going for them. It makes our third pair way better just because of the kind of player [Polak] is and then you give him [Dermott]. He’s just got to pass the puck over and they’re out.
“They’re better together than they would be apart.”
Ditto Matthews and Nylander, who combined yet again on the power play for Saturday’s postcard opening strike and represent but two of the Leafs’ six different 20-goal scorers, a bounty spread over three lines.
The Leafs dive into the playoffs with Matthews on a nine-game scoring tear (6-7-13). Their best player is their hottest player.
Saturday, they set fresh franchise marks for points (105), wins (49) and home wins (29). Frederik Andersen — “our brick wall,” Matthews says — edged out Ed Belfour and Andrew Raycroft and now is the sole owner of most wins in a Leafs season (38).
“It’s fun when you set goals at the beginning of the year and you achieve some of them. It goes without saying, there are bigger goals,” Andersen says. “Everyone’s hungry.”
The career years by eight or so different core members; the joyful, creative style of play; the elite special teams; the gulf between the Leafs and the 2017-18 disasters in Montreal and Ottawa… Toronto has four full days to bask in one heck of an 82-game test drive before the real race begins.
Breathe deep, Toronto. Enjoy the view before breaking out your Brad Marchand voodoo dolls or your snarkiest “VA-si’s TIR-ed!” razz.
Then buckle up for what might just be possible.
“There’s a lot of tradition and history in Maple Leafs Nation. To set any sort of record is an achievement, but the end of the day, that’s not what we’re playing for,” Kadri said.
“We envision bigger and better things.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 67th trip to the playoffs beings in just a few days.
Is it Thursday yet?