With playoffs secured, Maple Leafs face tough decisions down stretch

The Jets scored three straight goals en route to a 3-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday. With the win, Winnipeg move closer to securing second place in the Central Division.

So sure, you could have looked at it like it was a battle for the title of best team in Canada, and then give the Toronto Maple Leafs their silver medals.

A loss to Winnipeg in the 79th game of the season for Mike Babcock’s crew wasn’t exactly lopsided, but after scoring first and then giving up the next three, it sure never felt like the Leafs had the zip to get back and win this one.

The Jets walked away with a 3-1 win, and in so doing, their superior size looked like a factor against the significantly smaller Leafs. That said, had the Leafs not played the night before in Long Island, and weren’t playing their fifth game in eight nights, maybe they would have had livelier legs and the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Blake Wheeler wouldn’t have seemed quite so imposing.

“You’re quicker if you don’t play the night before,” shrugged Babcock, dismissing any suggestion Winnipeg’s size advantage underlined a possible concern for his team going into the playoffs.

“I don’t think they generated a ton out there, and I don’t think we generated a ton. It was tight.”

None of it really mattered at all, and really, the game didn’t either. It was a contest between two clubs that already have a playoff berth sewn up with a week to play. The Leafs are third in the Atlantic Division and are just waiting to see whether it’s Tampa Bay or Boston in the first round, just like they’ve been waiting for about two months now.

Winnipeg will be second in the Central Division, likely to face Minnesota in the first round. And that’s it, folks, for CanCon in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. The five other teams will be watching or not watching, and maybe supplying players for the world championships. Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins agreed to play for Canada on Saturday.

Both the Leafs and Jets, meanwhile, have the talent to go on a run, and both could also find themselves casualties in the first round. The league is that tight, and the divisions in which both teams find themselves are that good.

For Babcock, it’s now decision time. Last year, the Leafs didn’t earn a post-season berth until the final Saturday. This year, they’ve got time to rest and put their feet up. What to do with three games in the final week? Babcock said Curtis McElhinney, the loser against the Jets, will be in net again Monday against Buffalo, giving Frederik Anderson a full five days of rest before starting the final two games of the season against New Jersey and Montreal.

Beyond that? The Leafs coach wasn’t saying, but he sure seems to be thinking about possibly resting some of his big boys next week. He’s likely to already be without defenceman Travis Dermott, who blocked a shot with his foot in the first period and didn’t return.

You could sit one or all of Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, although none have had to carry big minutes all season. Marner led the threesome with just over 19 minutes against the Jets. Morgan Rielly might benefit from a night off.

Patrick Marleau, 38, and Ron Hainsey, 37, could both probably use a few days off before the post-season begins. Both are being counted on to give the Leafs a little more experience in these playoffs than they had last year in losing in six to Washington in the first round.

“Curtis will start the next game,” said Babcock. “We haven’t really talked about the rest of the crew.”

If there’s a player who could use a few more games and some more minutes to get his game revved up before the post-season, it would be centre Tomas Plekanec. He’s now played 15 games as a Leaf since being acquired at the trade deadline, and as indicated by the one assist he’s managed to generate, he has been a significant disappointment. A ghost, really.

Plekanec led the Leafs with three official giveaways against Winnipeg, and had one shot in less than eight minutes of competition. He did win five of six faceoffs, but the speed and savvy the Leafs were hoping from him just haven’t materialized. So far, he hasn’t shown he’s much better than Dominic Moore in the No. 4 centre slot, and definitely not as effective as big Brian Boyle was last year when he was added at the deadline.

Statistically, the Leafs and Jets are nearly identical teams, good scoring squads that have their challenges in their own zone. Paul Stastny, the veteran centre the Jets got from St. Louis at the deadline when the Leafs added Plekanec, figured in on two of the three goals by effectively screening McElhinney, and Winnipeg is hoping he’ll add another level of maturity to the Jets as they return to the playoffs.

The Matthews versus Patrik Laine matchup didn’t amount to much, although Matthews set up Marleau for Toronto’s lone goal. Laine had three shots, but it surely looks unlikely he’ll be able to crack the 50-goal barrier this season.

With Andersen taking the night off, meanwhile, there was no chance to measure him against Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, who has had a better season statistically than Toronto’s No. 1 puck stopper and made 28 saves on 29 shots to get the win Saturday night.

Toronto and Winnipeg ended up splitting the two-game season series, and now go their separate ways. They can only meet again in the Stanley Cup final, and that would be a spectacular treat for Canadian hockey fans if it were to happen.

The Jets have had a slightly better season, and Saturday night was a night to wonder if the Leafs might yet be a wee bit too young to make a lot of noise in the post-season.

They’re in uncharted territory now, home and cooled out with a week still left in the regular season, and then probably another three or four days off before they begin the playoffs. That means they’ll be at least another 10 – and maybe 11 – days away from their next meaningful game.

Babcock’s got to keep them sharp, a challenge if he does end up deciding to give a few players some much needed rest. Chances are he learned how to do that during his years in Detroit when the Wings frequently locked up a playoff berth before most other NHL clubs.

For the Leafs, it’s been a record-setting season, and being the second-best team in Canada heading towards the spring dance certainly isn’t the worst situation to be in. There are teams in Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal that surely wish they were nearly that good.


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