Hit with injuries, Maple Leafs prioritize health but salvage a win over Capitals

Jason Spezza tied the game late in the third period while Alexander Kerfoot went five-hole to cap off the shootout as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Washington Capitals 4-3.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in survival mode.

They must preserve for the playoffs more than prepare for them at this point.

Top-line winger Michael Bunting limping off the ice Saturday in Florida was a sharp reminder of quickly depth can dwindle. As was star centre John Tavares’s taking an ultra-rare day of rest Sunday in Washington for load management.

“The reality is, you gotta play the games, and injuries happen in our game,” coach Sheldon Keefe said, prior to Toronto’s 4-3 shootout win over the Capitals. Playing their third playoff team in four nights, the Leafs looked gassed for prolonged stretches. The scoreboard was much gentler than the opposition.

“You try to do all that you can to keep your players healthy. But you still have to be competitive and play the games.”

“Competitive” was a little hit-and-miss during an uneven 1-1-1 road trip on which the Leafs were outscored 14-6.

After losing a high-paced overtime to Florida, hopping a charter, and settling into their D.C. hotel around 4 a.m. Sunday, the Leafs were running on fumes and into a rested and rowdy Capitals squad.

“We definitely didn't have our best tonight,” Jason Spezza said.

“It's just next-man-up mentality this time of year. Different night, different guys have to step up. And I think it's just the nature of the time of year. You're not always going to be healthy. You're not always going to have a full lineup.”

Mercifully, two games remain.

Tuesday’s home date versus lottery-bound Detroit should have all the intensity of an exhibition match, and Friday’s finale against Boston could be either a tone-setter or a no-hitter. We’ll see.

For all the bluster over the Maple Leafs’ roster depth in recent weeks, the bumps and bruises are taking a toll.

Goal champ Auston Matthews needed a week off to recover from an undisclosed ailment.

Rookie defenceman Timothy Liljegren — breaking out nicely since being paired with Mark Giordano — needed Sunday off to heal some wounds, a decision that necessitated an emergency callup of journeyman left shot D-man Carl Dahlstrom.

Veteran Jake Muzzin traveled on this three-game road trip but was not deemed fit enough to play in a single game. Muzzin is dealing with an undisclosed injury, unrelated to the two concussions he suffered earlier this year, but he hasn’t looked like himself for months now.

Rasmus Sandin (knee) is a smart bet to be recovered for Game 1. Ondrej Kase (concussion) feels like a long shot. And backup goalie Petr Mrazek, out with his third groin injury as a Leaf, is weeks away.

More clarity on Bunting’s injury should come Monday, when the club returns to Toronto and the winger undergoes further testing.

“His spirits are OK,” relays Justin Holl. “Obviously, he's frustrated. What he says is, ‘It's a bad time of year to have something like this happen.’ Which is true — but we don't really know what the severity is. So, everyone's fingers are crossed.”

Toronto rested No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell, leaned heavily on Erik Källgren’s bounce-back effort, and dressed a lineup against the hard-hitting Capitals that revealed some limitations to their depth.

Wayne Simmonds, a healthy scratch not so long ago, was promoted to the third line. Alexander Kerfoot centred the second unit. And rookie Nick Abruzzese was given a crack on the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Keefe’s options are now limited by injuries and the salary cap.

Bunting (and Kase, for that matter) bring some grease and fearlessness to the top nine that will be sorely missed come May.

“It's a big loss for us,” Keefe said. “[Bunting] is a unique player for our group with his skill-set and his energy and his attitude that he plays with. We've grown to really appreciate what he does. He brings a lot to our group. 

“We've played without different people all throughout the season at different times. The [2-1] stretch we just played without Auston, as an example, where guys stepped up. And more of the same here — guys will take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.”

It wasn’t pretty, but the depth grinded and prevailed on this night.

A late rally keyed by Ilya Mikheyev and Spezza salvaged a point in regulation, and Kerfoot’s shootout winner earned Toronto the bonus.

One more standings point, and the Leafs lock up home ice in Round 1.

Maple Leafs fans understand better than most how key injuries can affect the outcome of a playoff series.

As antsy as they are for games that matter, their main priority is health. Even more so than securing the second seed.

“We’ve got to take care of our players here,” Keefe stressed.

“I'm not going to be taking too much out of this one here. We’re just gonna press

Fox’s Fast 5

• With Liljegren out, ex-Flames Giordano and T.J. Brodie were reunited as a pair — but it was a tough outing to judge.

“There's a little bit of rust there,” admitted Giordano, who had to adjust to Brodie’s left curve. “I stuffed him with a couple of passes there tonight. Just getting used to that again.”

• The Capitals head into the last week of the regular season with no clue who will be their Game 1 starter. Vanecek has started 38 games with 23 wins and .910 save percentage. Ilya Samsonov has started 37 games with 23 wins and a .897 save percentage.

Neither has a contract for 2022-23 yet.

“We’re going right down to the end here watching the goalies,” coach Peter Laviolette says.

• Ilya Lyubushkin set a new career high in goals (two). He has scored more in 29 games as a Maple Leaf than he had in 180 games for Arizona (one).

• Rick Tocchet confirmed on Spittin’ Chicklets this week that the Maple Leafs made him a tempting offer in the off-season to be an associate coach. (The Penguins and Bruins also reached out.)

Tough decision, Tocchet said. He chose to spend the season as a TNT analyst but looks to get back in the league a head coach down the road.

• Matthews is idle at 58 goals and down to two games to hit 60. His current five-game goal “drought” is the longest of his season.

With an assist on Lyubushkin’s strike, Marner increased his point total to 97. One hundred is within grasp.

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