Quick Shifts: Can the Maple Leafs survive playoff nastiness?

The Leafs dynamic duo do damage while Crosby, Travis Konecny, William Karlsson and Andre Burakovsky throw their hats in the ring for goal of the year.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. There are three major reasons why we believe the Toronto Maple Leafs should be secretly rooting for the Boston Bruins to outperform the Tampa Bay Lightning this weekend. Both of the Leafs’ potential Round 1 hosts have 110 points and two games left; Tampa wins the tiebreaker.

To a man, the Leafs say it doesn’t matter which Cup contender they draw next week, but we’re not buying it.

For one, Andrei Vasilevskiy has admitted to being tired and has had a worse second half than Tuukka Rask. For two, the Lightning carry higher expectations than any other club in the East — because they’ve been at the top of the standings since October, because they pushed all-in at the deadline, and because their core has already come within two wins of lifting the silver thing. One spring ago, Leafs coach Mike Babcock called it “the pucker factor,” and it has had sour effects on some wonderful regular-season Washington Capitals squads.

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But the third, and most intriguing reason, is that Boston is nasty (and we’re not just talking about Brad Marchand’s Twitter feed).

The Leafs, much like Tampa, are built to win one way: speed and skill and pray their gigantic goalie is dialed in. That identity flies smoother in the East than the West.

Last Saturday’s match versus the Winnipeg Jets, albeit in a no-stakes back-to-back, drilled home a point: The Maple Leafs can be pushed around physically.

“The Jets are a big, strong team. They’re built that way for sure. They’ve got a lot of bodies. They can roll both ways,” says Leafs tough guy Matt Martin, who — let’s be honest — won’t see playoff ice time unless something goes sideways. “[Coach Mike Babcock] obviously has a certain style of game that he likes that might not be the Winnipeg Jets’ style and what they like.”

Toronto’s 20 hits per game rank them 24th in the league, the gentlest of any club headed to Eastern Conference side of the bracket. The Leafs rank 27th in blocked shots, 28th in penalty minutes per game (6.9) and 26th in majors (12), which is great for preserving your health and winning special-teams battles, but hockey is about to hurt.

“We’re a fast team. We rely on our skill and speed more than anything. You have to play to your strengths is what I’d say,” Martin says. “The Jets are a big, physical team-that’s their strength. The speed of this team, the skill, that’s our strength. It’ll be interesting to see if we get a matchup like that how it would play out.”

Indeed. Boston is that matchup; Tampa is not. Is Babcock concerned physicality could be an issue for his charges over a seven-game grind?

“No,” he said flatly, following that Jets loss.

Babcock is molding these Leafs more in line with Pittsburgh — crazy forward depth that only needs tiny windows to score, killer power play, defence by committee, great goaltending — than Washington, which Martin says is the heaviest team in the East. Tampa coach Jon Cooper says he actually enjoys playing Babcock teams because he knows they’ll stick to a system. Unsaid: They won’t beat his guys up.

But the grind of the 82-game season can lull us into an amnesia about how ugly the post-season can get. It’s why James van Riemsdyk might not be allowed to set up shop in the blue paint and why Anaheim and L.A. should scare the West as low seeds.

“It picks up big-time. You see bodies flying everywhere, especially early in a series. Finishing checks, blocking shots-all that stuff becomes that much more valuable in the playoffs,” Martin says.

“Look at finishing checks, for example. We played Winnipeg the other night: If we finish all our checks on them, we don’t see them for the rest of the year. But if we’re in a series with them, you finish their guys and you play ’em the next night and you hope over the course of a series you wear them down. That stuff becomes a lot more valuable and you’ll see it a lot more. You see it all the way down the line come playoffs. Not that guys aren’t giving 100 per cent during the season, but it is an 82-game season. You’re trying to get to the playoffs. Once you’re there, the intensity picks up, the physicality picks. Everything is on another level. It’s the best time of year.”

Martin says the strategy of punishing your series opponent isn’t just implied; it’s spoken about in the room, often.

“It’s talked about to more extremes in the playoffs. You have a chance where you’re playing, say, a [Kris] Letang on the back end, you want to make it physical on them. You could be playing the same guys for two weeks. If you’re constantly being rubbed out, if you’re constantly being hit, that takes a toll on your body. The hope is, by games 5, 6 and 7, that’s taken its toll and they turn it over, make a mistake. Everything is that much more important in a playoff series. That’s the message.”

Sure, a bend toward a more physical game plan might benefit Martin personally, but he’s not lying.

The game will get nasty fast, and nastier in TD Garden than in Tampa. The Leafs will be in tough either way in Round 1, but they’ll have fewer wounds to lick and a better shot at proving that speed and offence can rule the day if they draw the Lightning.


2. With the final regular-season game going Sunday and the playoffs starting Wednesday and no coaches getting fired in-season for the first year since 1967 expansion, many are predicting a Black Monday in the NHL.

That Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman were given an endorsement from Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonagh Thursday allows us to turn our attention elsewhere.

The Buffalo Sabres, the first franchise to finish 31st, weren’t supposed to be this awful. A Hall of Famer as a defenceman, Phil Housley coached only high school before leapfrogging to an NHL assistant in Nashville and landing the head gig in Buffalo.

Rookie GM Jason Botterill hired Housley, so we’d be surprised if he didn’t choose to give him another shot — but ownership’s patience might thin.

Housley points to the Sabres’ losing so many one-goal games in October as a major factor in the spiral downward.

“If you get off to the start that we did, it’s just hard to overcome that during a long season. To get that momentum, you need to come out of the gate,” he said. “We never got back in stride.”

True. But Florida, Minnesota and Colorado also stumbled early and managed to figure things out.

The players would rather own the underachievement than let their coach take the heat.

“I thought he’s done a good job. I don’t think we’ve helped him out very much,” Ryan O’Reilly says. “He’s very detailed, and when we stick to that, we’re a good team. When we get away from the game plan, it’s tough. I think he’s a good coach that lays out a good game plan for us. He’s honest.”

Funny how the Sabres went from having the longest-tenured coach (Lindy Ruff, 1997-2013) to the Edmonton model of four different bench bosses over five years. That constant turnover has to be difficult for the players, no?

“It’s tough to comment on that,” O’Reilly says. “When I look at everything, it comes down to the guys who go on the ice. New staff comes in; changes are made. That happens. It’s a job. Things don’t work, changes will get made.

“We’ve got to figure it out in this locker room. The guys that go on the ice every day, we have to change it.”

3. This is a wonderful reminder that a hockey team is about more than just players and coaches:

4. This June will mark the sixth annual interview period for the NHL’s unrestricted free agents. Buffalo Sabres backup Chad Johnson is expecting to be part of the wining and dining for his fifth time. He tells us that every year he reaches his job interview fair, the Toronto Maple Leafs are involved.

“Every year I’ve talked to them. It seems like five or six teams every year are always very interested and I’ve had offers from them every year, which is nice. I have a lot of respect for that organization,” says Johnson, who recognizes that the Leafs are set for 2018-19 with Frederik Andersen and Curtis McElhinney both excelling.

“It has to be the right fit with contract. I have so much respect for Mr. Lamoriello and Babcock — they put together a really good team. You never know what lies ahead or what can happen, but I’ve had conversations with them every summer. It just hasn’t worked out.”

Johnson (10-15-3) earned $2.5 million playing behind a soft D core this season. His save percentage ain’t pretty (.895), but he did beat the Leafs, Lightning and Bruins six times this year. He suffered too many nights like Monday, when the dynamic Leafs hung five goals on him, all on Grade-A chances. Put Johnson in, say, St. Louis and is he that much worse of a backup than Carter Hutton (.930)?

“Whatever team you’re on, there’s so many factors that go into my statistics as a goaltender,” Johnson explains. “I obviously don’t have the statistics I want to have, but I’m happy for the way I’ve played. Sometimes you can’t control everything else around you. I try not to think about that too much. I try to worry about what I can control. The first half of the year was tough for everybody.

“I’ve felt good all year with my game, it’s just the second half we’re playing a little better than we were in the first, and I’m getting results. I feel I can help any team as long as I have help.”

Is Johnson, 31, nudging his team under the bus with those comments? Is he trying to get the jump on selling his CV to stick in the league? Maybe a little, but Housley has his back.

“Earlier in the season we weren’t giving him the goal support or we were giving up too much [chances],” Housley says. “He’s a very good pro. He approaches his practices and comes to work and has played really good hockey for us lately.”

Buffalo is likely to give Linus Ullmark, 24, a chance to start in October. But do the Sabres attempt to bring back Johnson or Robin Lehner or shake things up?

Johnson believes he can be “that really good 1B” option and counts his great run in 2016-17 for Calgary as the most enjoyable stint of his career.

“It’s my hometown. I’ve always had a lot of pride and passion for the Flames organization,” Johnson says. “Being able to play in front of family and friends, I don’t think there’s anyone who would play harder than I did for that city and that organization just because I want that city to do well — not when I’m playing against them obviously. I’m open to anything. I can’t say no to anywhere. I was very passionate about being a Flame. We’ll see what happens.”

As taxing as it is, Johnson likes the UFA interview process as he’s been able to develop a dialogue with teams like the Leafs, and you never know when those relationships could lead to work down the road.

“It makes for a pretty stressful week, trying to make a decision,” he says. “For me, it’s all about looking at that opportunity where there’ll be a chance to play and compete for playing time.”

5. I’m jacked to watch director Gabe Polsky’s upcoming sports documentary In Search of Greatness, which features Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, Serena Williams and more. The film, due this fall, has already stirred a little 2019 Oscar buzz, and if it’s half as good as Polsky’s last film, Red Army doc, it’ll be worth 90 minutes of your life. Here’s the trailer:

6. David Amber has a brilliant idea for this June’s NHL Awards.

Invite Scott Foster — the 36-year-old accountant/beer leaguer who posted a 1.000 save percentage in seven saves of emergency relief for the Chicago Blackhawks — to present the Vezina Trophy.

Do it, NHL.

7. Fashion forward Auston Matthews says he discussed the possibility of creating his own clothing line last summer but decided the timing wasn’t right—yet. It’s “definitely” an endeavour he sees pursuing in the future, he said this week.

The rollout of Auston Matthews, The Brand has started small by design. The sophomore counts Bauer, Fanatics, Upper Deck, and — the biggie — Scotiabank as his endorsers.

Matthews’ personal deal with Scotiabank didn’t come to fruition until a few months after the bank bought the naming rights of the Leafs home arena for $800 million.

As far as the proper timing goes, we’re betting Matthews waits until his monster multi-year extension with the Leafs before he follows P.K. Subban and Jack Eichel into the fashion world and starts popping his name on tags.

8. Allow me to pile on to the Sedin love.

When the NHL threw a $1 million incentive on the table for the winning team of its divisional 3-on-3 all-star tournament in 2016, it was kinda like hosting a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and then only inviting millionaires to play.

For the average all-star, a win equates to a 1.6% salary bonus, basically a cost-of-living raise.

I asked a bunch of all-stars in Nashville what they would do with their share of the prize pot if they won.

Daniel Sedin, the Canucks lone representative, was the only one who said he’d give the money to charity. Didn’t even blink.

“If I win, it’ll be going to a good cause,” Sedin told me the day before the game. “I know that.”

The next day, Sedin and the Pacific Division did win. Karma.

Tellingly, that was the last winter a Sedin was invited to the showcase, giving way to next ones Bo Horvat (2017) and Brock Boeser (2018).

The thing that most sticks out from my back-to-back sit-downs with Henrik and Daniel as they entered the 2015-16 season is their honesty.

Henrik: “It feels like the Western Conference has gotten better around us for the last six or seven years.”

Daniel: “I can’t even go on the swings anymore with my kids. I get sick.”

That comment made me think of the concussion Daniel suffered by the nasty elbow of Duncan Keith and the night his head got clipped by Nazem Kadri. We’ll never know what they’ve endured physically to lead such remarkable careers.

9. “It is—how do you say?—sad,” said Andreas Johnsson, the Swedish Maple Leafs rookie who grew up admiring the Sedins, upon learning of their retirement. Johnsson will never get to play against Daniel and Henrik.

“I’ve never met them. They’re really big back home. You see them every championship, every big Swedish tournament, and I watched all their highlights too. They’ve done such an amazing job here in the NHL and for the Swedish national team,” Johnsson says. “I’ve been following them my whole career. They’re amazing players.”

Staying up late to watch the twins’ magic Thursday night, it dawned on me that there is a generation of hockey fans who don’t know what the Canucks look like without the Sedins. And now there will be a generation who’ve never seen them play.

It is — how do you say? — sad.

10. Which is a more promising sign for the Toronto Raptors: the Boston Celtics’ injury list or Krusty the Clown giving them a shoutout?

11. No one tanks like Buffalo tanks. By securing the worst record in the NHL, the Sabres have the best odds (18.5%) at winning Rasmus Dahlin, who would have an opportunity to crack one of the league’s thinnest blue lines.

We can picture Dahlin linking with Rasmus Ristolainen, giving the Sabres a young, deadly lefty-righty, Swedish-Finnish pairing for years.

With an 81.5% of not landing Dhalin, however, franchise face Jack Eichel has been keeping tabs on a draft-eligible power forward with a hockey bloodline who’s been starring for his alma mater in Boston.

“I know BU has a good player. I follow them and [Brady] Tkachuk’s there,” Eichel says. “I’m a hockey fan, so I follow everything.”

What Eichel sees is a very large, very skilled 18-year-old. Brady is 6-foot-2, 194 pounds. Because he was born on Sept. 16, he missed being part of the 2017 draft class by mere hours and he’ll actually be 19 when the 2018-19 season kicks off.

Matthew Tkachuk — one of a select few Calgary Flames whose level of intensity did not disappoint this season — says his younger brother is better. And Brady’s 23 points, 61 penalty minutes and plus-15 rating over 40 games as an NCAA freshman speak to an involved player.

After watching Eichel carry a disproportionate amount of the work alongside Evan Rodrigues and Jason Pominville on the Sabres’ top line, the young Tkachuk would be a compelling addition for a Sabres squad that needs more bite.

12. On Tuesday I will be on a flight bound for Winnipeg. They’re calling for subzero temperatures and a Whiteout. I’ve never experienced playoff hockey in Manitoba, and I cannot wait to write some words about it.

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