Young Leafs defencemen stand tall in Tampa, help weather turbulent week

William Nylander scored the deciding goal between his legs to lift the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the Lightning.

TAMPA, Fla. — When Zdeno Chara made his NHL debut, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren weren’t yet born.

In fact, if you combine the ages of the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defencemen (39) they still lag behind the soon-to-be 43-year-old Chara, the NHL’s oldest active player.

These pieces of trivia highlight just how green the pair of Swedes are even after a couple of years of seasoning in the American Hockey League. And they are now being leaned on by a NHL team trying to secure a playoff spot.

In fact, with Jake Muzzin lost to a hand injury during Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, it appears as though Sandin and Liljegren will take on an increasingly important role heading into the stretch drive.

“I was still in junior at their age,” said teammate Tyson Barrie. “For them to be coming in and playing as well as they are in situations like this, I can’t even imagine what that would have been like.”

Sandin (9:34) and 23-year-old Travis Dermott (11:12) basically split the third-period shifts in half after Muzzin, a fellow lefty, went down at Amalie Arena. They helped the Leafs batten down the hatches amid a strong push from the Lightning, securing two big points in the standings and temporarily restoring some calm following a turbulent week.

There should still be ample concern about Muzzin’s status moving forward — especially since Toronto is already limping by without Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and Cody Ceci (ankle). It’s believed Muzzin was hurt when he blocked a Victor Hedman shot late in the second period.

If his hand is broken, the shutdown defender is going to be on the shelf for a little while.

That would force Dermott up to the matchup pairing alongside Justin Holl — an experiment that had a three-game run when Muzzin was out in January — and would likely see Barrie play with either Martin Marincin or possibly Calle Rosen, who could be in line for a call-up after being reacquired before Monday’s trade deadline.

Then you’d continue with a Sandin-Liljegren third pairing that now has a little less buffer above it.

“I think we’re really going to have to embrace the ‘next-man-up [mentality],’” said Barrie. “I think there’s some teams that have done it really well this year like Pittsburgh, for example. We’re going to have to go with that because we’re in a spot where we can’t let that affect the way we’re playing.

“It’ll be a big test for us.”

They passed a big test in Tampa and found a way to win ugly despite encountering speed bumps along the way. The Lightning had Toronto marked down for just six scoring chances at 5-on-5 — two of which were goals off the sticks of Muzzin and captain John Tavares.

The Leafs found two more big ones on the power play — one a tip from Tavares and the other a gorgeous between-the-legs finish from William Nylander.

In the third period, they simply tried to collapse around goaltender Frederik Andersen and prevent high-danger looks. The even-strength attempts were 16-7 in Tampa’s favour and the shots were 14-3.

Sheldon Keefe believes it could represent a moment of growth for an inconsistent team because it found a way to navigate through some difficult spots.

“It’s that feeling, it’s going through it, it’s finding a way, it’s losing your leader on the back end in Jake Muzzin and just finding a way to get it done and not cracking,” said Keefe. “I thought we did a good job. They had a push — they threw a lot of pucks at our net in that third period — but I think if you were to go through it you’d see that there wasn’t a whole lot of quality in terms of scoring chances or anything like that.”

They may have to embrace playing a game in the muck if Muzzin’s out long term. Rielly and Ceci are both expected back later in March, but they’ve only just resumed skating this week.

The task was already tall with Muzzin in the lineup.

Without him?

“It’s such a key player for us, he’s been playing great,” said Tavares. “No question it’s a big loss, but at the same time we can’t hang our heads and think ‘Why us?’”

As the Leafs head south for what has to be the biggest Toronto-Florida game in history on Thursday — the list of contenders is short, we can assure you — they will continue to roll out a defence pairing with 32 combined games of NHL experience.

Sandin and Liljegren are both potential core members of this organization, but they are being tossed into the fire right now. Even if they get sheltered usage, there’s only so many ways to protect them in games that are so tight and carry so much importance to the Leafs season.

“Those guys are really important for the future of this team and getting them experience at this time of the year [is crucial],” said Keefe. “Those guys need to get acclimated to this league, they need to take another step in their development and they’ve been able to do that while giving us minutes.”

At this moment, nearing the end of this strange season, the Leafs don’t really have any other choice.

The future is now.

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