TORONTO — The countdown is on.
After a long year spent waiting for redemption, the number of games sitting between the Toronto Maple Leafs and another crack at the post-season has been whittled down to single digits. Sheldon Keefe’s club got No. 9 out of the way Wednesday night at Scotiabank arena. Only eight more remain before these Leafs can try to prove they’re more than what they were 12 months ago.
And only one thing matters over the course of those eight games. The time for lessons learned, for experimentation, for growth, is through. Here, in the home stretch, it all comes down to Game 1, under the lights, with the Tampa Bay Lightning standing across from them — each night until that one is only as important as the ways in which it can help them find success in that moment.
So, Keefe’s squad will take Wednesday’s overtime loss on the chin. Because more important than the one point collected, against a desperate Florida Panthers squad, are the signs of key members of his locker room raising their play, of things ramping up when they need to.
For arguably the club’s two most important pieces — star pivot Auston Matthews and likely playoff starter Ilya Samsonov — that was clear from the jump, both putting together solid performances against the Cats, even amid an eventual loss. But deeper in the lineup, where the ice isn’t guaranteed and the spots must be fought for, another Leaf showed he’s ready for the post-season battle, too.
“That 6-on-4 situation, it’s going to happen again for sure,” Leafs forward Zach Aston-Reese said post-game of the scenario that allowed Florida to flip this one late. “So, definitely something we can watch the tape and learn from. And hopefully down the stretch be a lot better at.”
Aston-Reese has proven to be much better down the stretch himself. That was evident Wednesday night as the 28-year-old earned Toronto its first goal of the game, nearly added another on a penalty-shot try, chipped in on the penalty kill, and finished the night tied with Matthews for the team lead in shots — all in eight-and-a-half minutes of ice.
A standout performance from a member of the squad who doesn’t often get opportunities to come up with them, and one facet of the reason Keefe has continued to roll with 11 forwards and seven defenders for the time being.
“That’s a good example of a guy that I think [has excelled] through this system — the times we’ve gone 11 forwards, a guy like Aston-Reese is playing more,” Keefe said after the final buzzer had sounded Wednesday night. “We’ve got a bottom five instead of a bottom six and we’re moving those guys around. So I think he’s gotten on the ice more, he’s found more of a rhythm. But also I think as the trade deadline passes, a guy like him really settles in.
“We’ve been very clear with him about what our expectations are, what we need from him. I think he’s done a really, really nice job here. Over the course of the month of March, we like a lot of what he’s given us.”
It’s a good sign for a Leafs team that is well-aware of the necessity of a quality bottom six, having time and time again been outduelled in the post-season when their top guns are sitting on the bench. The club knows, more or less, what it’ll be getting from the Core Four, and the other marquee names dotted throughout the lineup. But it’s the others on the fringes who remain a question-mark — and who could wind up being the hidden-gem heroes when the time comes.
Both of Aston-Reese’s key plays Wednesday showed his potential to come up with one of those unpredictable post-season moments.
The most memorable of the two was likely the lesser successful of them — a penalty shot that had the crowd roaring in approval, midway through the game with the two teams tied.
Netminder Alex Lyon held him at bay. But it’s the play that set up the penalty-shot attempt that should be of some comfort to his coach, as it showed sparks of rekindled chemistry between Aston-Reese and trade-deadline acquisition Sam Lafferty, who took a hefty hit to spring a sprinting Aston-Reese on a glorious breakaway chance.
Asked earlier this month about new Leaf Lafferty — after Lafferty set up Aston-Reese for one of his two goals in a standout performance against Carolina — Aston-Reese said the pair certainly have some experiences they can draw from.
“We were linemates in Wilkes-Barre,” he said. “I think it was his first year, my second year. … We had a lot of points together, we were on the power play together, penalty kill together. So, definitely some chemistry there.”
Aston-Reese’s more triumphant moment Wednesday might’ve been easier to miss — a quick goal from the winger early in the second period, after the Leafs had peppered Lyon but found themselves trailing 1-0. Digging for an opportunity in the offensive zone, Aston-Reese posted up in front of the Panthers netminder, extended across the goalmouth, and pulled out an artful deflection of a TJ Brodie point shot, tying the game.
It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment burst of skill. Like his link-up with Lafferty, it was a sign of something that’s been slowly building — in this case, something the bottom-sixer’s been working on week in and week out while he’s hunted for more production in his limited minutes.
“I never get deterred,” Aston-Reese said of that hunt. “It’s just spending more time in practice, out there at the end tipping pucks. I’ve been doing that a lot at the end of practice lately.
“Just practice and stick with it. It’s a long year. We’re hoping to go far in the playoffs. So you’ve just got to stick with it.”