TORONTO – These are the luxuries of first place.
With a playoff-bound x prefixed to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings chart and a comfy nine-point buffer separating them from the rest of Canada, every day from now till Game 1 is a maintenance day.
We are seeing the sharpening of swords, the organizing of horses and resting of bodies before battle.
With no regular-season dragons to slay, no true threat facing the Leafs in their final six games remaining in the string, it’s simply time to knot loose ends, settle scores, and oil the machine.
To think: On Thursday night, coach Sheldon Keefe started his third-string goaltender, filled out a lineup card that didn’t include five or six of his ideal playoff skaters, tested three new defence pairings, jumbled the lines, and still saw his group dominate the drained Vancouver Canucks in a 4-1 beatdown.
“Guys haven't played in a couple weeks, and it's hard to shake off the rust sometimes, but I thought everybody that came in tonight really looked good and helped us win,” said Auston Matthews, after scoring his NHL-best 36th goal and NHL-best 11th game-winner.
Using their final back-to-back as opportunity for load management, the Leafs granted veterans Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Nick Foligno a night off. Regulars Zach Hyman (knee) and Zach Bogosian (shoulder) are rehabbing from injury, as is new shutdown centre Riley Nash (lower body).
Starter Jack Campbell was given a mental break from not having to dress as the backup. Instead, fourth man up Michael Hutchinson donned the mask and ballcap, and he saw only slightly less work than starter David Rittich.
The Czech needed just 15 saves to secure his first win as a Leaf and a game puck gathered by Mitch Marner, who retrieved the souvenir from the Vancouver end — where it had been all night.
“Oh, he's an awesome dude,” Rittich said. “That's a great thing by him, and the only thing I can say is thank you.”
Patient deadline acquisition Ben Hutton made his Leafs debut. Prospect Timothy Liljegren made his NHL season debut. Talk-of-the-town Rasmus Sandin was elevated to the top pairing and a career-high 21:39 workload.
“A, we think he earned it. And B, it’s part of the growth process for him. We want to be able to give a little bit more and see how he handles it,” Keefe explained.
“For Rasmus, I think it was natural for us to give him increased responsibility and just put him out there and get him going. I think he’s done a good job today. It’s a really positive development for not just Rasmus but our entire defence.”
Partnered with the steady T.J. Brodie, the 21-year-old responded to his first top-four assignment with an assist, three blocks, two hits and a plus-2 rating.
“I don't even know where to begin, to be honest,” Matthews said of the rookie. “I mean, he's really good.”
The reconfigured blue line didn’t skip a beat, limiting the Canucks to a grand total of two shots in Period 1 and shutting them out at even strength. (J.T. Miller scored on the power play.)
Just as Sandin will give the coaching staff something to think about for the playoffs, a healthy internal competition is being waged amongst the depth forwards.
After a week of healthy scratches, Pierre Engvall stormed into the lineup, sniped a beautiful goal and joined Jason Spezza and Adam Brooks on a line that generated seven scoring chances and gave up zero. As difficult as it’s been for Brooks to squeak into the lineup, the smart pivot is making it hard to boot him out.
Joe Thornton, 41, extended his point streak to four games.
Alex Galchenyuk got off the minus train and skillfully set up William Nylander for a snipe.
And Wayne Simmonds did his part by picking a fight with Alex Edler, who can add getting his face punched to getting fined and suspended as punishment for sidelining Hyman with a knee-on-knee check last week.
Simmonds aggressively picked a revenge fight with Edler right off the hop. Until Simmonds, the veteran defender had lasted 995 career games (playoffs included) without a fighting major, and the reluctant pugilist needed repairs after hanging on for dear life.
“That's part of what Wayne brings to a team. I do think little things like that are in the fabric of our game and I think are part of what makes a team a team, brings a team together. Credit to Simmer for stepping up in those situations,” Keefe said.
“His teammates appreciate it and recognize it. It set a good tone for the game. It was nothing that was really talked about beforehand or anything like that. It caught me a little bit off guard, but I think anyone who's been around the game kinda knew what was happening there. Credit for Wayne to step up and, at the same time, for Edler to participate in that.”
Simmonds may also be fighting for shifts.
When Toronto returns to full health, playoff ice time will be at a premium.
Internal tryouts are underway, and Keefe has held some one-on-one conversations with forwards in the mix, challenging them to step up and make his decisions easy.
Keefe sees it as a healthy competition. Depth is a blessing, not a problem.
“The only thing the players can control is their performance and their role in grabbing onto a role, and then being consistent and being responsible and showing that you bring value to the group,” Keefe said.
“We've got a lot of different options when we're healthy. I think it's just a matter of all those things falling into place. But yeah, certainly, I think the players recognize it.
“Players are smart enough to sort those kinds of things out and do the math.”
Andersen unlikely to suit up for Marlies
Goaltender Frederik Andersen (knee) is back practising regularly with the Maple Leafs, and he’s hopeful to squeeze in a start or two prior to the post-season.
That said, Keefe sounded decidedly cold on the notion that Andersen might get an AHL conditioning stint with the Marlies as part of his preparation.
“We haven't had those discussions. I don't know where that's really coming from. It just hasn't come across my desk,” Keefe said.
“We're just trying to get Fred healthy and comfortable enough to be ready for game action here.”